Social Security whistleblower questioned by investigators after going public
MADISON, Wis. – One week after going public with allegations of misconduct and intimidation by managers at the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, Celia Machelle Keller had a visit from federal investigators peppering her with questions and making accusations of their own.
“I got home today (Wednesday) … and the dogs are going crazy,” Keller said. “Two guys are at my door. They gave their cards and told me they were with the (Social Security Administration) Inspector General’s office and they want to speak with me.”
Keller said it’s just more retaliation from a Social Security disability claims review agency that has come under fire for an array of conduct issues – including going after whistleblowers.
The lead case technician has worked for the Madison office for several years, and she claims management retaliated against her after she was called to testify in an inner-office misconduct case last year. The incident involved alleged “inappropriate behavior” by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), she said.
Now, Keller claims the Inspector General’s office is dogging her because she took her complaints to Wisconsin Watchdog and to the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Keller, who did not want her name publicly disclosed in the first story last week for fear of reprisal, says she’s tired of living in fear.
“I’m scared to death to go into work tomorrow. What are they going to have waiting for me? Are they going to perp walk me out like they did the guy from Milwaukee?” she said.
Keller is referring to Ron Klym, a senior case technician in the troubled Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. Klym was the first Milwaukee ODAR whistleblower to go public with his allegations of lengthy case delays, inter-agency “shell games” of case transfers, and retaliation against employees who pointed out misconduct. Klym was temporarily placed on administrative leave shortly after he went public with the charges.
Klym also was subjected to an Inspector General investigation not long after taking his allegations of administrative misconduct to federal authorities.
Keller said the Inspector General agents told her they were investigating her for scheduling her son’s girlfriend, Danielle Bray, as a hearing monitor for disability claims appeals. The investigators took issue with what they characterized as a suspiciously higher amount of work Keller was providing Bray.
“They said, ‘Danielle Bray is scheduled for 12 days. Do you see how that looks suspicious?’” Keller said. The insinuation, Keller said, was that she was taking kickbacks for assigning Bray more work. Keller’s son and his girlfriend live with Keller and her husband in their McFarland home.
“They were out here for 30 minutes, drilling me, asking me, ‘Don’t you see how bad this looks?’” she said.
“They were questioning my integrity. I would never put my family in jeopardy for a few extra dollars.”
There’s apparently no policy against assigning family members work. Keller said several relatives of administrative law judges and supervisors at the Madison office work as hearing monitors and in other positions.
An official with the SSA Office of the Inspector General, citing the Privacy Act, said she could not confirm the existence of, or comment on any specific allegations involving any possible investigation.
“However, I can tell you that the Office of the Inspector General does have a role in the whistleblower process and we take whistleblower allegations very seriously,” said Tracy B. Lynge, communications director for the Inspector General’s office.
Keller said she provided the agents with scheduling documents and emails showing there was nothing untoward about the process. She sent Wisconsin Watchdog the same records. Everything looks in order, with Bray’s schedule approved by supervisors.
In one email chain in February, the director of the Madison office, Laura Hodorowicz, wrote a curt message threatening that she will “absolutely stop using” Bray after Keller complained that Bray was not getting as many hours as other monitors.
Keller previously told Wisconsin Watchdog that she and other staff members have been bullied and intimidated by Hodorowicz. Keller said she and some of her colleagues learned after they complained in another harassment case that raising conduct questions was basically futile. Hodorowicz, she said, made life difficult for whistleblowers.
“We had a bullseye on our back,” Keller said.
Doug Nguyen, regional communications director at the Social Security Administration’s Chicago office, did not return a call seeking comment. He has declined comment in the past, saying the whistleblower allegations are “personnel matters.”
At the same time, Keller has received exemplary ratings in her performance reviews, even as investigators were called to look into the scheduling issues.
“Machelle exceeded expectations, both in terms of the volume of work she produced and the quality of what she did. She routinely pulled more than her fair share of cases,” her supervisor wrote in Keller’s appraisal in October 2015. She received a similar review in April 2016.
“How does a person get all 5s (the highest performance grade) on her employee evaluation and get accused of scheduling” irregularities? she said.
“Retaliation,” Keller answered her own question.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this in my 28 years of being a paralegal,” she said.
( By M.D. Kittle / May 26, 2016 )
Social Security whistleblower now faces firing
MILWAUKEE – Ron Klym spoke out publicly, alleging incompetence, misconduct and retaliation in the federal government office where he has worked for 16 years.
Doing so might just cost him his job.
On Thursday, less than a month after Klym’s accounts were featured in a Watchdog.org special investigation, the senior case technician at the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review was forced to sign his own employment death warrant.
Klym said 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,” Klym said.
The veteran employee of the Social Security Administration office that handles disability claim appeals was placed on administrative leave. He was told that Regional Chief Administrative Law Judge Sherry Thompson would make the final decision on the proposal within the coming weeks.
Klym, who claims he has endured several incidents of supervisor-driven retaliation since taking his complaints to federal authorities, said he wasn’t surprised by Thursday’s events.
“Frankly, this is the epitome of how they do business,” he said.
Earlier this month, Klym detailed the Milwaukee office’s growing backlog of cases. Wisconsin Watchdog obtained records of some of the more lengthy delays.
Dozens of cases on appeal took more than 700 days to complete. One Green Bay case clocked in at 862 days to dispose of. A Marquette request for benefits hit 1,064 days, and another was completed in 1,126 days.
“We had two clients who stopped in the office yesterday wondering what’s going on, and they have been waiting for 21 months,” Jessica Bray, partner at Upper Michigan Law in Escanaba, Mich., said in the May 4 investigative piece. Her colleague handled the noted cases that topped 1,000 days. “I sent a letter to the Milwaukee office, but I don’t think it’s going to do any good. Those cases haven’t even been assigned yet.”
In 2011, the inventory for the Milwaukee region’s disability claims appeals office was at approximately 2,200 cases; today it’s running at about 12,000, Klym said.
Doug Nguyen, communications director for the Social Security Administration Chicago region, a six-state region that includes Milwaukee, said the agency acknowledges that Milwaukee ODAR has a “high average processing time for disability appeal hearings, and we are working to address the issue.”
Nguyen has said he cannot comment on personnel matters.
More problematic is what Klym calls the administrative “shell game.” He said the Milwaukee office’s case disposition numbers have at times drastically improved because managers in the chain have dumped off scores of cases to other regional offices.
“They are wholesale shipping cases out,” the senior legal assistant said. The impression is that the offices are performing at a better rate than they actually are. “When you ship 1,000 cases to somewhere else, then you do an audit, it looks better.”
At least three other ODAR employees have confirmed Klym’s account.
Now Messina is moving to have the whistleblower removed.
Klym said he is being charged with performance failures and conduct unbecoming a federal employee – all trumped up charges, he said.
The senior case technician said he is being held to a higher standard than his peers, required to meet increased production metrics. Those new standards, coincidentally, went into effect not long after he took his complaints to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last July, Klym said.
But he has documentation showing that his supervisor had rescinded the higher thresholds, noting that Klym’s previous workload – at as much as twice the output of his colleagues – was satisfactory.
He also has performance appraisals noting his exemplary performance in preparing cases.
Klym also faces being fired because he raised his voice and used “obscene” language during a discussion earlier this month with the ODAR office director, Trevor Pelot.
Klym said the discussion did get a little heated when Pelot told him that he had violated the public trust by taking his complaints about the office public.
“There is a definite retaliatory thing going on here,” he said. “I’m concerned that Mary and Ms. Keller may be next.”
Klym referred to Mary Brister, another employee at the Milwaukee office, and Celia Machelle Keller, a lead case technician at the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review.
Brister, who went public with her complaints about the Milwaukee office, was suspended last week and she lost her tele-work privileges for a year. She claims management retaliated against her for telling her story to Wisconsin Watchdog.
Keller had Social Security Administration Office of Inspector General agents show up at her door this week, days after the whistleblower publicly claimed managers harassed and intimidated her after she testified in an office harassment case.
Klym, too, was interrogated by Inspector General agents at his home, some 18 hours after he contacted the office of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, about the issues in the Milwaukee office.
He will remain in his position while he awaits the final judgment. But Klym is not allowed in the building.
“I’m in a difficult position,” he said. “I can’t enter the office, so how can I access documentation or speak with anybody to prove I am innocent?”
He said he plans to reach out to representatives on the Senate committee and the federal office charged with protecting whistleblowers.
( By M.D. Kittle / May 27, 2016 )