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Watchdog opens probe into huge Social Security fines to poor, disabled

(Patrick Semansky/AP)
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An independent watchdog this week opened a broad investigation into Social Security Inspector General Gail Ennis and her office following a Washington Post report that revealed how an anti-fraud program has imposed massive penalties on disabled and elderly people.

The inquiry by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), a group that investigates misconduct allegations against inspectors general, comes as Ennis has been directed by the acting Social Security commissioner to suspend the program amid mounting political pressure.

In a letter, a senior White House official urged a quick response from the chairwoman of the inspectors general council, Allison Lerner, who took the unusual step of notifying Congress and the White House that she had opened the probe. On Thursday, congressional staffers will question Ennis’s deputies about the program.

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

“Given the gravity of the allegations, I strongly encourage the Integrity Committee to work expeditiously,” Jason Miller, deputy director for management for the White House Office of Management and Budget, wrote in a letter sent late Monday that also noted concerns about reports of retaliation against whistleblowers who questioned the penalties. “It is critical that the American public have full confidence in the important work of the Inspector General community, and that is why it is imperative these allegations be resolved in an appropriate and expeditious manner.”

Rebecca Rose, a spokeswoman for Ennis, wrote in an email, “We will continue to be responsive and cooperate fully” with the investigation and a parallel probe of the penalties by acting Social Security Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi, who has announced a “full investigation” of Ennis’s oversight of the anti-fraud program. Ennis, as a member of the inspectors general council’s Integrity Committee, must recuse herself from all committee matters while the investigation is ongoing.

Lerner declined to comment on the investigation.

At the heart of the investigation is the Civil Monetary Penalty Program, a little-known anti-fraud program run by the inspector general’s office. During the Trump administration, under Ennis’s watch, the program began levying unprecedented fines, which reached hundreds of thousands of dollars, on more than 100 people accused of improperly receiving disability benefits. The fines were imposed without considering the age, financial condition or other mitigating factors of the recipients — a departure from how the program had previously operated.

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

Civil fines are supposed to provide an alternative when fraud is considered too insignificant to warrant criminal prosecution by the Justice Department. In years past, cases had often settled, with agreements for drastically lower fines as claimants gradually paid back what they owed taxpayers.

On Thursday, the staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform and Ways and Means committees will summon two of Ennis’s deputies to brief them on how the fines escalated, and about the treatment of two senior officials on Ennis’s staff who raised repeated concerns about the penalties.

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

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

Ennis’s chief counsel on Wednesday told the attorneys who work in the civil penalty program to stop issuing fines until further notice while Kijakazi’s staff conducts a thorough review of the program, which was delegated to the inspector general’s office when it started in 1995.

Top House Democrats welcomed the new investigation by CIGIE.

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

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who leads the government operations panel on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said in a statement that “inspectors general must be pure as driven snow” and said other watchdogs have lingered in their positions for years while the council investigated.

Congress is watching, and our oversight Subcommittee is prepared to take appropriate, swift action,” Connolly wrote.

The investigation is likely to be far-reaching. The troubled anti-fraud program is one of several controversies roiling Social Security’s 500-person internal watchdog division, charged with oversight of the agency that distributes retirement benefits to 69 million Americans and monthly disability checks to about 15 million others.

Dozens of senior auditors, law enforcement agents and other staff have quit or retired, many in frustration with what they describe as Ennis’s mercurial leadership and lack of focus on the office’s mission, according to current and former staff members. Ennis has defended her leadership and said some employees bristle at changes when a new leader comes in.

Audits have also plummeted. So has morale, which has taken a nosedive in successive surveys of the federal workforce since Ennis took over. New data for 2021 collected by the Office of Personnel Management for the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) and released internally Tuesday shows 28 percent of those who responded consider the inspector general’s office a good place to work, with 13 percent agreeing that their senior leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment. And 22 percent said senior leaders maintained high standards of honesty and integrity.

Rose, a spokeswoman for Ennis, called the inspector general’s staff “our most valuable resource in accomplishing our mission” and said the office has made efforts to “improve workplace engagement” for several years. “We are analyzing the 2021 FEVS survey results,” she wrote.