A senior Social Security official often weakened at work, witnesses tell investigators

When the Inspector General of the Social Security Administration investigated earlier this year allegations that one of the agency’s top executives was regularly drunk at work, six witnesses painted an alarming picture.

Theresa Gruber, Deputy Commissioner overseeing approximately 9,000 employees and a $1.2 billion budget for hearings and appeals operations, posted ‘significant abnormalities’ at work over at least a year, including slurred speech in which she ‘appeared drunk’, leaving meetings without notice, slumped in her chair and aggressive behavior, witnesses said to investigators.

But five months after Acting Social Security Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi received the internal report, which The Washington Post obtained, Gruber remains in office. The witnesses’ claims were corroborated to the Post by three senior Gruber executives, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.

Over the past few months, Inspector General Gail Ennis office received more formal complaints about Gruber’s conduct, according to people with knowledge of the communications. She continued to act erratically, three agency employees said, and in recent weeks has missed several meetings of her senior management team.

Gruber, who was not interviewed by investigators contrary to common practice in administrative investigations, declined to comment for this story.

Staff members told investigators that while they did not directly see Gruber consuming alcohol on the job, her behavior led them to wonder if she had been drinking. Gruber, 53, also has diabetes, the report notes, a condition which, when improperly treated, can cause irritability, disorientation or slurred speech. She told a close circle of colleagues that she was struggling with medical issues stemming from the illness, according to the report.

Witnesses told investigators that, whatever the cause, Gruber’s conduct affected his management of the agency’s Office of Hearings Operations, which operates one of the largest administrative court systems in the world.

A senior official interviewed by The Post described a “rudderless” department under Gruber, which at times does not communicate with its staff for days at a time, the official said. “She’s MIA, and they’re not holding anyone accountable,” said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss publicly. Another official described “delays in decision-making,” important meetings, and difficulty getting Gruber’s attention — factors they said threaten the department’s mission to conduct impartial hearings and render reports. decisions on appeals regarding retirement, survivor, and disability benefits for poor and elderly Americans.

“If you can’t do this job anymore, honestly, you should put your hand up and say, ‘100% I can’t do this anymore,'” said another person from Gruber’s team, who expressed frustration that “nothing has been done”. .”

The investigation, designated a “preliminary investigation” before being sent to Kijakazi in February, took place as Social Security is under intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill, with the agency is struggling to fully restart its field operations after being shut down for more than two years during the pandemic and its inspector general is facing multiple investigations into huge fines at the office imposed on disabled and elderly people.

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Kijakazi, whom President Biden appointed acting commissioner a year ago, also had a strained relationship with Ennis, whose office oversees the agency that distributes retirement benefits to 69 million Americans and monthly disability checks to about 15 million others, according to people familiar with their association.

Kijakazi staff are investigating Ennis’s management of an anti-fraud program that inflated penalties of up to hundreds of thousands of dollars against poor, elderly and disabled claimants accused of collecting benefits they were not entitled to . The acting commissioner announced she would investigate following a report by the Post in May. The program has been suspended indefinitely.

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Mark Hinkle, a spokesman for Social Security, wrote in an email that “due to confidentiality mandates, we cannot comment on any purported circumstances” of the contents of the inspector general’s report on Gruber.

“When we receive allegations of potential personnel issues, including those involving executives or managers, we take appropriate action, if necessary,” he wrote.

Hinkle defended the work of Gruber’s department during his tenure, writing that “Wait times for disability benefit hearings have steadily declined from a peak in 2017 and the number of hearings waiting is approaching a 21-year low.”

He added: “Given this and the information available, we have confidence in the management of the Office of Hearings Operations.”

Federal government operations experts said the apparent inaction could make employees reluctant to report management issues in the future.

“Social Security leadership is clearly protecting one of their own,” said Nick Schwellenbach, lead investigator for the Project on Government Oversight, which monitors the work of federal inspectors general and advocates for system reforms, after The Post reported. describes the allegations against him. “If you just sweep the problem under the rug, that’s the kind of thing that kills public trust in federal agencies.”

The investigation was launched by Ennis staff in December, the report notes, after the watchdog’s office received a complaint against Gruber, a career civil servant who worked at Social Security for 31 years, rising from a claims representative in a Minnesota field office to a promotion in 2015 to one of the agency’s most powerful roles.

His department handles half a million hearings and appeals per year for claimants applying for disability, retirement and survivor benefits, with more than 1,500 administrative judges and staff in 10 regions and nearly 170 offices local audiences.

Gruber’s staff members described to the Post a sometimes innovative, decisive and empowering leader who has won praise for overseeing efforts to reduce a well-publicized backlog of disability hearings and more recently for transitioning his employees to the remote work during the coronavirus pandemic.

These staffers also called her an outspoken manager who can be gruff and has recently crossed a line in “intense anger…often over trivial issues,” the report said. Witnesses described increasing problems at work, conduct that “appears to have been common knowledge” in his department, investigators wrote. His behavior sometimes improved, but only sporadically.

According to the Inspector General’s report, some Gruber staff saw her unable to remember what had just been said or decisions she had made recently. They described needing to remind him of meetings on his calendar or not showing up for meetings. Sometimes she would get angry during meetings, disconnect, and then fail to returning phone calls or emails when staff members tried to contact her.

An employee told investigators that some of Gruber’s aides would resort to preventing her from “making important decisions” on days when she was acting impaired. Others said she started delegating decisions.

The behavior has been seen in meetings large and small on Microsoft Teams, the video conferencing software Social Security has used to communicate during the pandemic. Attending were regional chief justices, regional management officers and administrative law judges, according to the report. Some employees were so alarmed at rallies that they sent instant messages questioning her behavior and speculating that she had been drinking, investigators say.

A Gruber staff person told investigators that his behavioral changes extended “beyond their professional interactions” and involved personal contact after normal working hours. calls in which she appeared impaired, according to the report.

It’s unclear why Ennis staff did not interview Gruber, a standard practice in an inspector general investigation, three federal watchdogs said.

The report concluded by referring its findings to the agency “for any administrative action deemed warranted” and requesting a written response explaining “the final decision or administrative action to be taken.” The report said the inspector general’s office took “no position” on the “imposition of administrative measures” against Gruber.

The investigation has not been made public.

Inspectors General have varied practices with respect to the disclosure of senior management reports, as they seek a balance between protecting staff privacy and exposing harmful behavior. If a leader cannot perform their job, it violates one of the key principles of the federal merit system to “manage employees effectively and efficiently.” The higher the leader, the less privacy he tends to enjoy, said several inspectors general who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues.

In cases where an employee displays conduct that affects their ability to work, According to federal government operations experts and written policies.

Ennis’ office gave Kijakazi 60 days to respond in writing to his report on Gruber. For reasons that are unclear, the Inspector General did not complete his investigation to produce a full report.

A spokeswoman for Ennis declined in an email to “confirm or deny” the report. The spokeswoman, who declined to be named, wrote that Social Security “is solely responsible for any personal actions” arising from an investigation of an agency employee. When asked why Gruber was not interviewed, the spokeswoman wrote that the bureau “does not disclose techniques and procedures related to its law enforcement investigations.”

Investigations by the inspector general are “not public records,” the spokeswoman wrote, a policy at odds with key federal oversight offices.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.


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