Madness in Milwaukee
It all began, as many stories of scandals do, with a single gutsy act.
For years, Ron Klym had worked as senior legal assistant for administrative law judges at the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR). As part of the Social Security Administration, these judges are tasked with granting or denying Social Security benefits.
Reviewing and dispensing Social Security benefits is an important responsibility, and one that was being plagued by management problems, Klym realized. He alerted senior officials about the problem, but then things started to get rough.
The SSA’s ODAR isn’t exactly known for its efficiency and timeliness. As of October 2015, the average wait time for processing disability claims was 450 days. The pace gets even slower, however, if one tries to appeal the agency’s decision. At the Milwaukee office where Klym worked, records obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog showed that dozens of cases on appeal took more than 700 days to complete. Some even stretched to more than 1,000 days. Klym said the backlogs had grown to record levels and worried that the delays were impairing applicants’ civil rights. They may not have a right to the benefits, he reasoned, but they have a right to due process. So he blew the whistle.
“No one can guarantee the benefit. I know a case where someone has filed for a benefit 26 times,” he said. “It’s not the result, it’s the opportunity. If your opportunity has been waylaid, to paraphrase (George) Orwell, we’re all equal, but some are more equal. That’s a process issue.”
Doug Nguyen, communications director for the Social Security Administration Chicago region (which includes Milwaukee), said the agency was aware of the long waits for disability appeals hearings and was “working to address the issue.”
As Klym tells it, however, the Milwaukee office was doing just the opposite. Rather than trying to address his concerns, he said the agency played a shell game by dumping scores of cases off to other regional offices, giving the impression that the Milwaukee office was performing better than it actually was. Worse, he said, the agency retaliated against him for blowing the whistle with harassment, additional work assignments, and unreasonable deadlines. He took his concerns to lawmakers in the U.S. Senate, and then went public to the press.
Shortly after Wisconsin Watchdog published a story detailing his allegations, he was placed on administrative leave.
Coming out of the woodwork
More whistleblowers have since come forward. After speaking anonymously with Wisconsin Watchdog in its initial report, Mary Brister went public with her story. She says that just a few days after she was anonymously quoted about alleged bullying and harassment within the Milwaukee ODAR, she was suspended for five days and given a one-year suspension from teleworking.
“I do believe this suspension is the result of me going forward with my story,” she said. As a veteran with PTSD, she added that she wanted to take her story to the public in order to stand up against an environment of intimidation in the ODAR workplace.
Celia Machelle Keller had a similar experience. A week after she went public with claims of misconduct and intimidation among managers at the Madison ODAR, she said a pair of federal investigators from the SSA showed up at her door and peppered her with questions. As the lead case technician at the Madison office for several years, Keller says management retaliated against her after she was called to testify in an inner-office misconduct case last year.
Like Brister, Keller was first quoted anonymously by Wisconsin Watchdog when she blew the whistle on misconduct, and she claims she experienced alleged bullying, harassment, intimidation and retaliation in response. She decided to go public, she said, because she was tired of living in fear.
News of the abuses at the Madison ODAR got worse in June when Wisconsin Watchdog reported that Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss is accused of extremely “inappropriate conduct,” including sexual harassment, at the Madison ODAR operations. In that story, a whistleblower told Watchdog that there is a “culture of corruption and cover-up” in the SSA offices, “and it begins at the top.”
File notes from cases support this accusation that the judge determined disability claims on whether he believed a claimant was sexually attractive. Pleuss even referred to an African-American woman as “gorilla-like” and said another woman “looks like she was ‘rode hard and put away wet.’”
Less than a week after our first bombshell story about the judge, a source close to the situation told Wisconsin Watchdog that Pleuss appeared to be suspended over the allegations. He was soon hearing cases again, but that didn’t last long: Sources later confirmed that he was removed from hearing cases through the end of the year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s losing his job or facing any serious consequences.
If Klym’s experience is anything to judge by, the fears of Brister and Keller are not groundless. His administrative leave status soon grew dire in the aftermath of his revelations. Less than a month after Wisconsin Watchdog’s first report, he said he was forced to sign what was effectively his employment death warrant.
He told Watchdog what happened when he was called into the office of Chief Administrative Law Judge Christopher Messina:
“He had a stack of papers in front of him. I said, ‘Well, it looks like a disciplinary action. Can I speak to my union rep? He said, ‘This is not a disciplinary action. This is a proposal to terminate. I need you to sign off on this.”
Come August, Klym was out of a job.
The Senate wants answers
Credit Image: © Jay Mallin/ZUMAPRESS.com
Amid the difficulties with their immediate employers at the SSA, these whistleblowers have found an important and powerful ally: U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (pictured), chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Johnson’s committee has received a number of complaints from employees at ODAR since Wisconsin Watchdog broke news of the scandal, and it has been briefed by SSA officials about the million-plus case backlog plaguing the disability claim system.
There are a lot of issues the agency isn’t talking about, however, and Johnson’s committee is pushing for answers. When asked about the accusations of retaliation, the SSA has cited the Privacy Act, claiming the law prevents it from disclosing information to Congress unless the whistleblower signs a waiver or the chairman of the committee signs on.
There’s just one problem with that argument, the Homeland Security committee says: nothing in the law throws up such obstacles to fact-finding.
The SSA’s feet-dragging has only made Johnson more determined to get to the bottom of the scandal. He says his committee will continue to push for answers. Johnson sent a formal letter to the Social Security Administration in June asking for its “unfettered cooperation” in turning over information about allegations of misconduct and retaliation in its disability claims review offices.
“I write to you concerning reports of whistleblower retaliation within the Milwaukee and Madison hearing offices of the Social Security Administration’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review,” Johnson said in the letter to Carolyn Colvin, acting commissioner at the SSA. He went on to show how SSA officials have systematically refused to address questions about media reports quoting whistleblowers claiming harassment and retaliation.
“Despite the serious issues that these media reports highlight, SSA has refused to provide information to the committee about these personnel actions,” he wrote.
Shaking things up
But while the SSA keeps quiet, more whistleblowers are speaking up. It appears their voices are being heard: Sources have told Watchdog that SSA’s Office of Inspector General is intensifying its investigation into whistleblowers’ claims.
Meanwhile, at the SSA’s Region 5 headquarters in Chicago, which oversees the troubles offices in Wisconsin, a major shakeup has taken place. Two employees in managerial roles have moved to different positions, and two judges in the Chicago headquarters have resigned.
We will continue to cover the fallout from the revelations of SSA whistleblowers. If you have something to tell us, you can reach us at [email protected]
*This article was originally published in June and updated in October.