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Social Security judges facing increasing threats of violence

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 10:50 PM

Losing Social Security disability benefits can be devastating. Potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits can disappear if an administrative law judge rules against those fighting to get money they think they're due.

Most people who lose cases accept defeat. Some choose to fight dirty.

After Larry Butler, an administrative law judge, ruled against a woman in Shreveport, La., last year, she wouldn't take no for an answer.

Latonya Kemp was on the short end of Butler's ruling. She was accused of retaliating, according to a criminal complaint filed in Shreveport by a federal agent, by making profanity-laced phone calls to Butler's home and sending harassing messages there through the mail.

"Judges get threatened quite often," Butler said. "What concerned me was when they started threatening my kids by name and my wife."

In one message, left on the office phone of Butler's co-worker, Kemp said, "Me and you and Judge Butler, we have a date with death and we won't be late," according to the agent's affidavit.

She was arrested before she could keep that date.

If only Jared Loughner could have been stopped before he allegedly kept a date with death. Loughner is accused in the shootings that left six dead, including a federal judge, and 14 wounded in Tucson on Saturday. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) clings to life after being shot in the head.

That orgy of violence has drawn attention to security issues surrounding federal employees. One group of workers for whom threats are an increasing problem are Social Security employees, especially the agency's administrative law judges.

"The Social Security Administration takes the security of its employees and the public very seriously," said a statement issued by the agency's press office. "Our security measures provide a high level of safety for our offices."

That's not quite the way the Association of Administrative Law Judges sees it.

The union says there were 50 reports of violent threats against judges and Social Security offices during the latest six-month reporting period. Compare that half-year figure with the total 106 threats recorded for the 31/2-year period ending in February 2005.

"The numbers are increasing, and the threats are very serious," said Randall Frye, president of the judges association. "I've been in government 37 years, and I have never seen the anger from the public, generally, that I see now."

He's not the only one who sees a frightening trend.

A report by Social Security's inspector general says the number of reported threats against Social Security Administration employees and property leapt from 897 in fiscal year 2007 to 2,336 in 2010. About 13 percent of more than 2,100 randomly selected employees who responded to an inspector general's survey said they had been threatened at work in past three years, half of them more than once.

Here's a sampling of security threats from SSA incident reports provided by the union:

l A man who received an unfavorable ruling by a Greenville, S.C., judge in March "stated that he was a snipper with the military and he would go take care of the problem."

l A woman at the Morristown, Tenn., Social Security office felt discriminated against and had an unfortunate way of expressing her feelings in June. "The claimant stated she felt like she had been 'screwed over' because she's not Black or Mexican, and 'no wonder people shoot people at these offices.'" If she knew where the judge lived, "she would hurt him so that he would understand her pain."

l In an Albuquerque case in September, a caller unhappy with a ruling said he would cut off the head of the judge.

Action by the angry speaks more painfully than words.

A security guard at an SSA office in Sacramento was shot dead by a person upset over a denial of benefits in 2000. The Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press says a man shot himself in a Social Security office hours after receiving a letter denying him benefits in 2001.

Mark Brown, an administrative law judge in St. Louis since 1982, warns that increasingly vitriolic political rhetoric can fuel more than threats.

"I'm afraid with some people it is enough to push them over the edge," he said.

"Some of them are grappling with enough demons that some of this rhetoric can help them convince themselves that what they are doing is justified. Clearly it is not."

Like other judges, Brown wanted it known that he was speaking in his capacity as union official and not as a government spokesman. That's understandable, because the association is critical of Social Security's approach to office security.

One of the main things it wants is more than one guard in SSA hearing facilities. That one guard screens all members of the public entering the facility, while supposedly monitoring activity in the hearing rooms. Sometimes there are as many as 18 hearing rooms.

The judges are particularly upset with a rule they said allows those whose cases are being decided to determine whether guards may be in the hearing room.

The agency seems to have a different interpretation of the regulation, but adds, "we are clarifying our written policy."

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