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Social Security whistleblower calls out agency, media in receiving award from journalists

By   /   March 31, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 59 of 61 in the series Deadly Delays

MADISON, Wis. –At an awards banquet Thursday, Whistleblower Ron Klym took aim at the federal agency that he says retaliated against him, but he saved some ammunition for members of the media on hand to recognize him as “Whistleblower of the Year.”

Photo contributed

WHISTLEBLOWER AWARDED: Ron Klym, the federal employee who blew the whistle on misconduct in the Social Security Administration, was recognized as”Whistleblower of the Year” Thursday evening during the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council’s seventh annual Openness Awards.

The long-time Social Security Administration employee received the award at the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council’s 11th annual Openness Awards. The “Opees,” as they are known, recognize extraordinary achievement in the cause of open government.

Klym is one of the key whistleblowers and sources featured in Wisconsin Watchdog’s investigative series, “Deadly Delays.” Klym first reported allegations of misconduct inside the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. He brought to light long delays of Social Security disability claim decisions in Wisconsin and Michigan ODAR facilities.

“A media which refuses to report on rampant waste, fraud, and abuse in its own backyard inspires few options, especially as four whistleblowers with 25 performance awards are intimidated …,” Klym said, referring to Milwaukee area media outlets.

Klym was fired in August, more than two months after Wisconsin Watchdog published the first story in the series and after U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, identified the Social Security employee as a federal whistleblower – entitled to special protection from retaliatory acts.

Klym told a packed house of journalists and journalism supporters about the “dangerous and hostile” work environment at the Milwaukee ODAR and the common practice of intimidation and retaliation against employees who report waste, fraud, and abuse.

“An environment which exacerbates the physical and professional well-being of whistleblowers spits in the face of every American that those bureaucrats are sworn to serve,” Klym said.

Of Klym, the Freedom of Information Council stated:

“This federal employee, a longtime senior legal assistant for the administrative law judges who grant or deny Social Security benefits, blew the whistle on what Watchdog.org, which reported his story, called “incompetence, misconduct and long case delays” at a Milwaukee disability office. Klym was allegedly subjected to additional work assignments, unreasonable deadlines and unjustified suspensions; in August, he was fired. “Absolutely. I am being punished because I am a whistleblower,” he said at the time. Now he’s being honored for it.

Klym also recognized his fellow whistleblowers in the Social Security Administration, including Deborah Holland and Machelle Keller, who brought to light allegations of widespread waste, fraud, and abuse at the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. A Social Security Administration Office of Inspector General investigation 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.

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.

“I thank all of you for your professionalism in raking the muck which much of the media seems to wallow in,” Klym said in his acceptance speech.

Opee Award winners include:

— John Krueger, an Appleton parent who joined with the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty in suing the Appleton Area School District for not letting him attend meetings of a committee formed in response to his curricula-related concerns. That case is now being decided by the state Supreme Court.

A member of the Freedom of Information Council read a prepared statement by Krueger, who could not attend Thursday’s award ceremony.

“The district disagreed with my interpretation (of open records law) and projected an attitude that said, ‘Sue us if you don’t like it.’ I thought that was an excellent idea,” Krueger wrote. “The real hero in this story is the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, also known as WILL, which sued on my behalf… WILL is a group of dedicated, civic-minded attorneys.”

— Lance Fena, a Milton School District resident, asserted his right to make a video recording at a school board meeting, as the law expressly allows. The board not only backed down after initially adjourning to avoid being filmed, it subsequently began live-streaming its proceedings.

The New Richmond News won the Media Openness award.

“It took more than three years, but this small newspaper in St. Croix County won its case challenging wholesale records redactions by law enforcement agencies all around the state. A state appeals court in May affirmed that local officials were overreacting to a 2012 federal court ruling in the amount of driver-license related information they have been withholding. Issues remain, but the New Richmond News brought a measure of clarity to what had been chaos,” the council notes.

The Open Records Scoop of the Year award was a tie. Katelyn Farral of The Capital Times, “exposed the dismal conditions at a state veterans facility in King, Wisconsin; the Legislature ordered an audit, the federal government issued citations, and the head of the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs resigned.”  The other recipients are “Patrick Marley and other Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters (who) documented shockingabuses at two state juvenile prisons; the state has increased training and oversight, and federal authorities are looking into possible indictments and civil rights prosecutions.”

—Gilman Halsted, a retired Wisconsin Public Radio reporter who produced award-winning examinations of the state’s criminal justice system, received the 2017 recipient of the Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award.

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.