MADISON, Wis. – The director of a scandal-plagued Social Security Administration hearing office used official leave and sick leave to gamble at an area casino, while a group supervisor got paid a full day’s wage to watch a Green Bay Packers football game.
These are just some of the many details about troubling conduct emerging from a report on a federal investigation into the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review.
And Sen. Ron Johnson wants answers quickly from the SSA.
The Oshkosh Republican, who serves as chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, sent a letter this week to SSA Acting Commissioner Nancy Berryhill seeking a response to the findings of misconduct and allegations of whistleblower retaliation at the troubled office.
Johnson is giving the agency until 5 p.m. on Feb. 27 to provide the documents the Senate committee is requesting.
“An Office of Inspector General investigation found serious problems, including time and attendance fraud, and showed that two whistleblowers in the office experienced disparate treatment from other workers,” Johnson wrote. “I request information about how SSA will address these problems.”
As the senator noted, while OIG investigators found violations of the law, the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Wisconsin has inexplicably declined prosecution. The U.S. attorney’s office did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment.
As Wisconsin Watchdog first reported earlier this month in its series Deadly Delays, SSA’s Office of the Inspector General “fact sheet” states the law was broken at the Madison ODAR facility and that managers held whistleblowers to significantly stricter standards than other staff.
Johnson expounds further on the OIG report, which was sent to the Social Security Administration on Jan. 30, and then presented to the U.S. attorney, according to the senator. The report has not yet been made public.
“The OIG report substantiated time and attendance fraud by employees in the Madison ODAR hearing office,” the senator wrote. “One employee documented that he worked a regular eight-hour day … when he actually attended a Green Bay Packers football game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin.”
OIG investigators found that the employee, identified as former Madison ODAR group supervisor Wayne Gentz according to multiple sources close to the situation, “violated federal law, federal regulations, and the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch.”
Former Hearing Office Director Laura Hodorowicz “used official and sick leave to gamble at an area casino,” Johnson wrote. “The OIG found this conduct violated federal law and federal regulations.”
Hodorowicz, accused of leading a “culture of corruption and cover-up” at the Madison office, was removed from the office and relieved of her management duties in August amid the OIG investigation. Sources say Hodorowicz remains employed with the Social Security Administration.
Gentz, too, was removed from the office and his position. He also remains on the agency payroll, sources say.
“Time and attendance abuses by the HOD (Hearing Office Director) and the GS (Group Supervisor) violated both law and regulations and set a tone for the office that misconduct by certain employees will be tolerated and, in some instances, encouraged,” states an investigation “fact sheet,” obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.
In June, an ODAR insider who spoke on condition of anonymity said Hodorowicz has long been fond of making “dirty backroom deals,” offering “cooperative” employees perks in the form of financial benefits and special privileges to maintain their loyalty and above all — silence — about misconduct in the office.
Eventually, the office director ran out of sweeteners, the source said.
“When that happens, the threats begin. … She will threaten people’s jobs, tell them she won’t promote them, lower their performance reviews, say that she will give them a bad reference,” the insider said. “She will give them the worst work assignments in the office.”
Multiple employees say the office director has been the subject of several investigations into her conduct in Madison, and when she held the same position in Milwaukee. Each time, they say, her cadre of loyalists testify on her behalf. And, sources say, they are rewarded for their loyalty.
The insider said Hodorowicz has taken nepotism to a new level. She hired the adult children of Bill Allen, an ODAR employee who refused to testify against her in a hostile work environment claim, according to the staff member with inside information. Office records also confirm the hirings. Following an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint, the supervisor’ son, Jason Allen, provided testimony helpful to Hodorowicz’s cause; Hodorowicz then hired Jason Allen’s wife, the source said. And Hodorowicz hired the daughter of a close friend. Gentz’s wife also was brought in to do administrative work.
“She hired those people in violation of hiring rules. Rather than hiring disabled veterans or other qualified applicants, (Hodorowicz) manipulated the hiring rules to hire employee family members as rewards,” the source said.
The inspector general report detailed evidence of hiring misconduct. It found that Hodorowicz “manipulated the hiring process on multiple occasions so that she could hire specific individuals, including the family members of current employees,” according to Johnson’s letter.
“The office director also attempted to dissuade applicants from applying to vacancies in favor of hiring family members,” Johnson stated. The OIG concluded the conduct “may have violated merit system principles” in federal law.
Federal investigators examined sexual harassment and other misconduct allegations against Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss. The OIG substantiated that Pleuss used “inappropriate, racist and sexist language in his hearing notes and writing instructions,” Johnson wrote.
While the inappropriate language was widely known throughout the office for several years, it was not addressed until after Wisconsin Watchdog published some of Pleuss’ notes and writing instructions in June, according to the letter. Investigators apparently have found no “overt” racial or sexist bias in the administrative law judge’s decisions, an allegation leveled against Pleuss early on.
Pleuss in his notes to legal assistants described claimants as “attractive,” “innocent-looking,” “buxom.” In one case, he noted a “young, white (woman)”appearing before him “looks like a man.”
“Obese, young, white (female) skimpy black top,” he wrote of another claimant.
“Very black, African looking (female),” the judge wrote, and parenthetically he added,“(actually a gorilla-like appearance).”
Pleuss retired at the end of the year, still eligible for a pension and a suite of federal benefits.
The OIG report also noted that to whistleblowers in the Madison ODAR hearing office experienced adverse treatment after making whistleblower disclosures. The Social Security Administration has denied any retaliation.
The OIG concluded that, “while we did not substantiate any clear instances of reprisal against [the whistleblowers], who disclosed the malfeasance in the Madison (Hearing Office) at great personal risk, we note that both of them were held to strict interpretations of all agency policies, while other favored employees … were not,” according to Johnson’s letter.
“SSA must take appropriate steps to address the violations of federal law and regulations found by the OIG,” Johnson wrote.
The senator is asking the Social Security Administration to explain:
- What steps SSA will take to address time and attendance fraud in the Madison ODAR hearing office.
- What steps SSA will take to address inappropriate hiring practices in the Madison ODAR hearing office.
- What steps SSA will take to ensure that inappropriate racial or sexual language is no longer used in hearing notes and writing instructions.
- Why the two whistleblowers identified by the OIG were held to “strict interpretations of all agency policies” while other employees were not.
- What steps SSA will take to ensure that whistleblowers are protected from retaliation.
- Provide SSA’s written policies for preserving federal records, in particular written material used in the decision-making process for disability adjudications.
Social Security Administration officials repeatedly have declined to comment on personnel matters.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin earlier this month sent a letter to Berryhill, urging the new administrator to “take appropriate action to ensure the hearing office in Madison and each of the Social Security Administration offices in Wisconsin are safe places to work for employees and provide high-quality service to taxpayers.”
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