Watchdog opens investigation into Social Security program that imposed massive fines on the poor and disabled

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An independent watchdog this week opened a wide-ranging investigation into Social Security Inspector General Gail Ennis and her office following a Washington Post report that revealed how an anti-fraud program imposed massive penalties on disabled and elderly people.

The The investigation by the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Effectiveness (CIGIE), a group that investigates allegations of misconduct against inspectors general, comes as Ennis was tasked by the acting Commissioner of the Social Security to suspend the program amid growing political pressure.

In a letter, a senior White House official urged a quick response from the chairman of the General Board of Inspectors, Allison Lerner, who took the unusual step of notifying Congress and the White House that she had opened the investigation. On Thursday, members of Congress will question Ennis MPs on the program.

How a Social Security program levied huge fines on the poor and disabled

“Given the seriousness of the allegations, I strongly encourage the Integrity Committee to work expeditiously,” Jason Miller, deputy director of management for the White House Office of Management and Budget, wrote in a letter sent Monday evening which also raised concerns about reports of retaliation against whistleblowers who questioned the sanctions. “It is essential that the American public have full confidence in the important work of the community of inspectors general, and that is why it is imperative that these allegations be resolved appropriately and expeditiously.”

Rebecca Rose, spokeswoman for Ennis, wrote in an email: ‘We will continue to be responsive and fully cooperate’ with the investigation and a parallel sanctions investigation by the Acting Social Security Commissioner. Kilolo Kijakazi, who announced a “full investigation” of Ennis’ oversight of the anti-fraud program. Ennis, as a member of the Integrity Committee of the General Board of Inspectors, must recuse himself from all committee business while the investigation is ongoing.

Lerner declined to comment on the investigation.

At the heart of the investigation is the Monetary Civil Penalty Program, a little-known anti-fraud program run by the Office of the Inspector General. Under the Trump administration, under Ennis, the program began imposing unprecedented fines, which reached hundreds of thousands of dollars, on more than 100 people accused of wrongfully receiving unemployment benefits. disability. The fines were imposed without taking into account the recipients’ age, financial status or other mitigating factors – a departure from how the program had previously operated.

Many of those who were fined had no hope of ever being able to pay. In a seven-month period that ended in mid-2019, 83 people were charged with a total of $11.5 million, according to documents obtained by The Post – a jump of less than $700,000 for all of 2017.

Civil fines are meant to provide an alternative when the fraud is deemed too insignificant to warrant criminal prosecution by the Department of Justice. In years past, cases had often settled, with settlements providing for significantly reduced fines, with plaintiffs gradually repaying what they owed to taxpayers.

On Thursday, staff from the House Oversight and Government Reform and Ways and Means committees will summon two of Ennis’ deputies to brief them on the escalating fines and treatment of two senior Ennis staff members. who have raised repeated concerns about sanctions. .

These senior officials were then abruptly placed on administrative leave, one dismissed and the other demoted. Both are back at work, one after settling a whistleblower case with the agency. The other, attorney Deborah Shaw, was found in May by an administrative judge with the Merit Systems Protection Council to have been the victim of “whistleblower retaliation” by Ennis’ office.

The Office of Special Counsel, a small independent agency that investigates retaliatory complaints against whistleblowers who report waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government, also opened a case after receiving multiple complaints that employees who work for Ennis suffered retaliation, according to two people with knowledge of the matter. A spokesman for Special Counsel Henry Kerner declined to comment.

Ennis’s chief attorney on Wednesday told attorneys working in the civil penalties program to stop issuing fines until further notice while Kijakazi staff conduct a thorough review of the program, which has been delegate to the Office of Inspector General when it was launched in 1995.

Top House Democrats hailed the new CIGIE investigation.

“This is a welcome first step in understanding who has been harmed by the apparent abuses of the Office of the Social Security Inspector General, and to what extent,” said Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D.Mass.) said in a statement.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who heads the government operations committee of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said in a statement that “inspectors general must be pure as beaten snow.” and said other watchdogs lingered in their posts for years while the council investigated.

Congress is watching and our oversight subcommittee stands ready to take appropriate and prompt action,” Connolly wrote.

The investigation may be long. The troubled antiThe fraud scheme is one of many controversies swirling around Social Security’s 500-person Internal Oversight Division, tasked with overseeing the agency that distributes retirement benefits to 69 million Americans and disability checks monthly to around 15 million more.

Dozens of lead auditors, law enforcement officers and other staff have resigned or retired, many of whom are frustrated with what they describe as Ennis’s mercurial leadership and lack of focus on the mission of the office, according to current and former staff members. Ennis defended his leadership and said some employees bristle at changes when a new leader arrives.

Audits have also dropped. The same goes for morale, which has taken a nose dive in successive federal workforce surveys since Ennis took over. New data for 2021 collected by the Office of Personnel Management for the annual Federal Employee Perspective Survey (FEVS) and released internally on Tuesday shows that 28% of those who responded consider the office to be inspector general as a good place to work, with 13% agreeing that their superior leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment. And 22% said senior leaders maintained high standards of honesty and integrity.

Rose, spokesperson for Ennis, called the inspector general’s staff “our most valuable resource in accomplishing our mission” and said the office is working to “improve on-site engagement.” work” for many years. “We are analyzing the results of the 2021 FEVS survey,” she wrote.


Washington

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