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