MADISON, Wis. – Federal investigators have posted online the summary of their probe into a scandal-plagued Madison Social Security hearing office.
There’s not much in the brief report that Wisconsin Watchdog hasn’t previously reported.
What remains unanswered is why federal prosecutors declined to bring charges for what appears to be criminal conduct.
While the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General 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 has not returned requests for comment.
The summary, posted at the OIG website, breaks down the major findings of the investigation.
- Hiring decisions were largely unchecked, leaving the management official (Hearing Office Director Laura Hodorowicz) free to populate the office with friends and family members of current employees, increasing perceptions of favoritism and diminishing both employee morale and focus on the agency’s public service mission.
- Hiring practices, which often included the manipulation of vacancy announcements to achieve a desired end, likely violated merit system principles resulting in prohibited personnel practices.
- No appointments violated Title 5 veterans preferences, though one stated end was to avoid hiring veterans.
- Management officials’ time and attendance practices violated both law and regulation, and set a tone for the office that misconduct by certain employees would be tolerated, and in some instances, encouraged.
- The presence of racist and sexist written comments in hearing notes was known to many employees and managers in the office for years and went unaddressed; however, we did not find evidence of any systemic biases in written decisions involving protected groups.
Federal investigators examined sexual harassment and other misconduct allegations against Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss.
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 Inspector General has yet to comment on the investigation. Full reports are not publicly available because they “contain sensitive confidential information,” OIG notes in its summary.
That the investigation found “no evidence of any systemic biases in written decisions involving protected groups” raises some questions.
Decisions on Social Security disability claims are written by ODAR attorneys in the office, not the judge. Could the judge’s comments bias the decision writers?
Some attorneys representing disability claimants have sought appeals of Pleuss’ cases.
As Wisconsin Watchdog reported last week, an OIG “fact sheet” on the investigation noted Hodorowicz 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 Green Bay Packer’s football game.
An OIG report sent to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, noted that 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 a letter Johnson sent to SSA Acting Commissioner Nancy Berryhill.
The senator, chairman of the Senate committee that has opened an inquiry into allegations of corruption and retaliation at the Madison ODAR, is giving the agency until 5 p.m. Monday to provide documents requested by the committee.
Social Security Administration officials repeatedly have declined to comment on personnel matters.
The Office of the Special Counsel has an open investigation into whistleblower allegations. OIG sent its report to OSC for “legal determinations related to reprisal and prohibited personnel practices.”
“Prosecution was declined,” the Inspector General stated. “We sent our report to SSA officials for their determination of administrative actions.”
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