Huge fines proposed


union files grievance

January 12, 2007|By MELISSA HARRIS

Three attorneys and their supervisor in an Iowa Social Security office are facing proposed fines of a combined $3.8 million for actions that union officials argue were performed at the direction of their now-deceased boss, according to a five-page grievance filed last month.

The attorneys worked for an administrative law judge, whose role was to determine whether people qualified for disability benefits from the Baltimore County-based agency. The judges work for the agency. Before they award benefits, they must be convinced that an applicant cannot perform "substantial work."

Social Security's inspector general's office proposed the fines, alleging that the attorneys took information gathered from an expert witness in one case and used it to justify paying benefits to more than 700 other applicants without notifying the expert or specifying the source.

In the grievance, Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, argues that the duplicated testimony was "general" and "hypothetical" in nature, applied only to "similarly situated" cases and was the result of a direction by the judge, whose name the union removed from the released filing.

The Des Moines Register reported this month that the judge is J. Michael Johnson, who died in August 2003.

None of Johnson's more than 700 decisions has been reversed, Kelley's filing said.

Privacy laws prohibit the union from releasing specific information about the expert's testimony, the illness or disability involved or how it was used to justify the judge's decision, said Dina Long, a union spokeswoman.

Jonathan Lasher, a spokesman for Inspector General Patrick P. O'Carroll Jr., said any proposed penalties against employees would be personnel matters and that he could not confirm or deny their existence.

Lasher said fines generally could grow as large as the ones in the current case.

"SSA prohibits false statements or misrepresentations being made of any fact used in determining disability benefits or the amount of those benefits," Lasher said. "Employees can be subject to up to $5,000 for each false statement. If benefits are paid out as a result of a false statement, then the amount paid out can be doubled and also assessed against the individual."

The manager, who supervised all of the cases, faces a proposed $3.5 million fine. Fines for the other attorneys range from $100,000 to $215,000.

There are several steps in the appeals process for the four employees.

Two of the attorneys and the supervisor have been asked to file a form detailing their personal finances so that the inspector general's office can settle on a formal fine. The employees have elected not to submit the form, the union said.

The fourth employee, who is represented by private counsel, filed an appeal, which will be heard by an administrative law judge.

Kelley has sent a letter to Commissioner Jo Anne B. Barnhart, asking her to intervene and to stop the inspector general's office from "abusing" its authority.

Mark Lassiter, a spokesman for the agency, said it would be "inappropriate" to comment on the matter because it involves continuing litigation.

The writer welcomes your comments and feedback. She can be reached at or 410-715-2885. Recent columns can be read at

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