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A whistleblower’s story: Paying the price for shining a light

By   /   March 8, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 57 of 61 in the series Deadly Delays

MADISON, Wis. — There can be a high price for being a federal agency whistleblower.

Photo contributed

A WHISTLEBLOWER’S STORY: Social Security Administration employee and federal whistleblower Machelle Keller says her health has rapidly declined since she first brought allegations of waste, fraud, and abuse to light.

Machelle Keller says she can testify to that. Perhaps one day she will in a court of law.

Keller, lead case technician at the scandal-plagued Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, has seen her health deteriorate rapidly over the past year. And her physical downhill slide, she says, began after she did what she is duty bound to do as a federal employee: Report waste, fraud, and abuse in her agency.

“I’m so tired of it. I don’t know how much more I can take,” the Social Security Administration employee told Wisconsin Watchdog Tuesday.

Keller finds herself in an awful predicament these days. If she leaves, as she believes her managers at the Madison office and SSA administrators would love her to do, Keller may regain her health but lose her livelihood. If she stays, she fears the constant bullying and harassment she says she has been subjected to just might kill her.

Her health care provider seems to agree.

“[Keller’s] migraines used to be relatively infrequent and manageable. However, within the last year, migraines have increased dramatically in frequency,” wrote Laura Ozkan, a physician assistant certified at Dean & St. Mary’s Outpatient Center-Neurological Institute, Madison.

In the Feb. 28 letter on behalf of her patient, Ozkan noted that Keller has identified workplace harassment as the source of her stress. The PA recommends Keller stop working until a federal investigation into alleged ODAR misconduct and whistleblower retaliation is complete and all harassment issues are resolved.

SSA administrators have yet to budge on the request, although they have given Keller special accommodation to work from home. No matter, the whistleblower said. She claims she continues to be harassed and bulled via phone, email and instant messenger. Her managers have continued to strip her of duties, she said, despite exemplary performance — including Keller’s 11 good conduct awards in six years.

In an email late last month, Keller said medical professionals told her she has been having “mini strokes” precipitated by the debilitating migraines she suffers. Her physician warned her that, should the larger vessels in her brain close off during a migraine, Keller could sustain a “major stroke.”

“I was told to stop all work stress, my question to you is, how can that be done?” she wrote. “I could die if one of the larger vessels in my brain decide it is going to close, or be a vegetable where I may have to be spoon fed by someone.

“I am now in the very petrified/scared stage. I cannot afford to be off of work, yet I cannot afford to lose my life but I have to provide for my family.  If I do not work I lose my home, car etc.. so I have no choice.”

A spokesman for SSA’s Chicago-based Region 5 headquarters, which oversees Wisconsin ODAR operations, did not return a request for comment. He has previously said that the federal agency cannot discuss personnel issues. He also has assured the Social Security Administration takes seriously allegations of misconduct and retaliation against whistleblowers.

Keller and her fellow ODAR whistleblowers tend to disagree.

The Madison office has for months been the center of a widespread federal investigation into allegations of “corruption and cover-up.”

As Wisconsin Watchdog first reported in its series, “Deadly Delays,” an investigation by the SSA’s Office of the Inspector General found the Madison hearing office director gambled at a local casino on the taxpayer’s dime, and another manager attended a Green Bay Packers game while on the clock.

The investigation report also states that 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.

The report specifies various abuses:

  • 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.

    LONELY LIFE: Peter Fox, attorney for Machelle Keller, says the life of the whistleblower “is a lonely one and often a very treacherous road.”

Federal investigators also confirmed what whistleblowers had reported, that Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss wrote sexually and racially inappropriate comments about claimants in his case notes. The investigation found “no evidence of any systemic biases in written decisions involving protected groups,” as has been alleged, but whistleblowers contend otherwise. Some attorneys representing disability claimants have sought appeals of Pleuss’ cases.

Whistleblowers in the Madison ODAR hearing office experienced adverse treatment after making whistleblower disclosures, according to the report, but 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.”

RELATED: Read Wisconsin Watchdog’s “Deadly Delays” investigative report

Peter Fox, a Madison attorney representing Keller and fellow whistleblower Deborah Holland in their legal battles with the federal agency, said his clients’ experiences underscore “the life of the whistleblower is a lonely one and often a very treacherous road.”

“Machelle’s condition has been exacerbated by bringing these situations to light,” Fox said. “This continues to be a significant obstacle for her.”

A recent report commissioned by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants delves into the price many whistleblowers are forced to pay.

Effective Speak Up Arrangements for Whistleblowers” notes how those who speak up are demonized and characterized as mentally ill or liars.

“The study of 25 workers who revealed wrongdoing in organizations such as banks and healthcare found that whistleblowers lost their job either by being pressured out of the organization or being dismissed,” wrote Karen Higginbottom, a human resources freelance writer, in a recent column for Forbes.

“If they did stay they suffered retaliation through bullying, demotion, isolation or harassment while some were forced by their company to take mental health counselling. Many did crack under pressure, suffering mental illness through depression, panic attacks or developed drinking problems,” Higginbottom added.

Holland, who had up until August served as a group supervisor at the Madison ODAR, was removed from her office by guards and stripped of her management position. She remains with SSA, doing special project work for Region 5. Holland, too, has a record of exemplary service to the federal agency. Whistleblower Ron Klym, a senior case technician at the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, was fired a couple of months after he went public with allegations of office misconduct, including claimant due process issues.

Several other SSA whistleblowers from Michigan, Illinois, California and elsewhere have reported being retaliated against for exposing waste, fraud, and abuse in their offices.

Wisconsin U.S. Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, and Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, have warned the Social Security Administration not to retaliate against whistleblowers, people who are supposed to be protected under federal law. The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Johnson, in June opened an inquiry into the misconduct and retaliation allegations.

Fox said he is pursuing “every recourse” he can to bring justice to his whistleblower clients.

Keller is doubtful justice will ever come.

“I’m a high-faith person. I pray every day. I live by the idea that good is supposed to prevail over evil, but it’s not in this case,” she said. “Am I 100 percent right? No, I do things wrong. But I don’t deserve this. My family doesn’t deserve this.”

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at [email protected]

Part of 61 in the series Deadly Delays
  1. Deadly Delay: Whistleblower alleges misconduct, incompetence in Social Security office
  2. Johnson seeks answers to Social Security whistleblower’s charges
  3. Social Security disability program has plenty of problems elsewhere
  4. Social Security whistleblower placed on administrative leave
  5. Social Security disability agency has history of punishing whistleblowers
  6. Senator to Social Security Administration official: ‘I would say the system is rigged’
  7. Whistleblower: ‘I want to do my work without fear of retaliation’
  8. Social Security whistleblowers ‘coming out of the woodwork’
  9. Social Security whistleblower suspended after going public with complaints
  10. Social Security whistleblower questioned by investigators after going public
  11. Social Security whistleblower now faces firing
  12. Social Security officials not answering questions about whistleblower retaliation
  13. ‘Culture of corruption and cover-up’ alleged in Madison Social Security office
  14. Ron Johnson: We’re tracking down abuse allegations in Social Security agency
  15. Senate committee presses for answers from troubled Social Security Administration
  16. Sources: Social Security judge suspended in wake of Madison scandal
  17. Attorney seeks appeal of decisions by Social Security judge accused of ‘sexy’ comments
  18. Social Security appeals judge pleads guilty to retaliation charge
  19. More retaliation despite investigation, Social Security office sources say
  20. Openly gay whistleblower at Social Security office claims intimidation, retaliation
  21. Wheels of justice turn frustratingly slow for Social Security whistleblowers
  22. Baldwin joins Johnson in calling for ‘immediate action’ on Social Security misconduct claims
  23. Documents: Social Security judge wrote claimant was ‘rode hard and put away wet’
  24. Social Security judge investigated for harassment heading back to hearings
  25. Social Security judge accused of misconduct refuses to step aside, sources say
  26. Whistleblower at scandal-plagued Social Security office seeks restraining order against manager
  27. Whistleblower report alleges widespread waste, fraud, abuse at Social Security office
  28. Sen. Johnson to Social Security commissioner: Retaliation will not be tolerated
  29. Baldwin warns Social Security Administration not to retaliate
  30. Social Security Administration fires whistleblower
  31. Who is protecting Social Security whistleblowers?
  32. Sources: Social Security judge accused of racial, sexual remarks removed from hearings
  33. Social Security office director removed from Madison facility, sources say
  34. Senate committee probe into Social Security whistleblower retaliation continues
  35. Madison Social Security office like ‘giant dysfunctional family,’ source says
  36. Damage spreads at scandal-plagued Social Security office
  37. Fired Social Security whistleblower gets no help from federal whistleblower protector
  38. One month later, Social Security whistleblower still without job, pay, answers
  39. Federal agents stepping up investigation into troubled Social Security offices
  40. Investigation into troubled Social Security offices in a ‘holding pattern’
  41. Recent weeks bring shake-up at scandal-plagued Social Security offices
  42. Top judges resign at troubled Social Security Chicago headquarters
  43. Social Security chief judge retiring amid cloud of scandal
  44. Troubled Social Security disability claims agency promotes ‘positive organization culture’
  45. Senate inquiry into scandal-plagued Social Security offices plods along
  46. Social Security whistleblower: ‘Everything has been compromised’
  47. Sources: Social Security judge accused of sexual harassment removed from Madison office
  48. Fired Social Security whistleblower won’t be taking whistleblower protection training
  49. Letter: Social Security judge under fire granted power to decide
  50. Sources: Social Security judge accused of deciding cases on sex appeal retires
  51. Johnson seeks GAO review of alleged Social Security ‘shell game’
  52. Social Security judge demanded $65,000 expanded bathrooms
  53. Investigation finds abuse, law-breaking, no retaliation at Madison Social Security office
  54. Report: Social Security managers gambled, watched Packers at Lambeau on taxpayer dime
  55. Inspector General releases major findings of probe into troubled Social Security office
  56. Social Security whistleblower waiting for answers in privacy breach case
  57. A whistleblower’s story: Paying the price for shining a light
  58. Fired SSA employee featured in Watchdog investigation is ‘Whistleblower of the Year’
  59. Social Security whistleblower calls out agency, media in receiving award from journalists
  60. SSA whistleblowers ask, where’s the justice?
  61. Probes into troubled Social Security offices crawling along

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M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.