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.”
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]
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