The acting Social Security commissioner will launch a "full investigation" on Monday of Inspector General Gail Ennis's oversight of an anti-fraud program that imposed extensive penalties on disabled and elderly people, a senior agency official said Saturday.
The action follows a Washington Post report that revealed how attorneys in charge of a little-known program run by Social Security's watchdog division issued unprecedented fines starting during the Trump administration.
More than 100 people who received disability benefits to which they were not entitled were hit with penalties as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those fines were imposed on poor, disabled and elderly people, many of whom had no hope of ever being able to pay.
The acting commissioner "has very serious concerns about the issues raised by The Washington Post about the inspector general's oversight of this program," Scott Frey, chief of staff to Kilolo Kijakazi, said in an interview. Kijakazi has scheduled a meeting with her senior staff on Monday "to discuss how to proceed," Frey said.
Top House Democrats with oversight of the Social Security Administration and its watchdog also called on President Biden to investigate, calling the penalties an "apparent abuse of authority."
"We are outraged by this stunning report," Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass.; Social Security subcommittee Chairman John Larson, D-Conn.; and worker and family support subcommittee Chairman Danny Davis, D-Ill., wrote in a statement late Friday.
The lawmakers called on the president and Kijakazi to "swiftly investigate this apparent abuse of authority, to put in place safeguards to prevent future abuse, and to provide relief to any individuals wrongfully victimized."
A White House official said in an email, "We are aware of the reporting but have no further comment at this time."
A spokesman for the Senate Finance Committee, which also has jurisdiction over Social Security, said the committee is "evaluating a number of steps" in response to the article.
The remarkable penalties issued by the Civil Monetary Penalty Program started in 2018 as the program was floundering. Attorneys went against federal regulations and deviated from how the program had recovered money from those accused of fraud for more than two decades.
The inspector general's office failed to take into account recipients' financial state, their age, their intentions and level of remorse, among other factors, according to interviews, documents and sworn testimony before an administrative law judge. Staff attorneys were directed to charge those affected as much as twice the money they had received in error, on top of the fines.
Over a seven-month period that ended in mid-2019, 83 people were charged a total of $11.5 million, the documents obtained by The Post show -- a jump from less than $700,000 for all of 2017.
It is not clear whether that is a full accounting of those affected by the practice of imposing stepped-up fines, which was halted by Ennis's office last year amid ongoing whistleblower complaints.
Two senior officials who raised repeated concerns about the fees to Ennis and her top staff after Ennis took office as a Trump appointee in 2019 -- were abruptly placed on administrative leave. Ennis then fired one official and directed that her staff demote the other, Deborah Shaw, an attorney who was found by an administrative law judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board in May to have been the victim of a "prima facie case of whistleblower reprisal" by Ennis's office. The office was ordered to restore Shaw's back pay and benefits and reinstate her as a supervisor.
Ennis had told Shaw and the other official, senior executive Joscelyn Funnié, that she would not renegotiate the penalties because she did not want to draw attention to the program and worried that Social Security would take it away from her office, according to testimony and four people familiar with her comments during a staff meeting.
Ennis spokeswoman Rebecca Rose said in an email Saturday that the civil monetary program imposes penalties on those who commit fraud against the Social Security Administration and its trust fund. "The ultimate victims are taxpayers and future, rightful beneficiaries," she said.
Rose wrote that the inspector general "is committed to ensuring that penalties and assessments are imposed fairly, consistently and in accordance with the law." She said Ennis will be responsive to "any Congressional inquiries" and will keep the acting commissioner "informed" about the program's operations.
Inspectors general at large agencies have broad autonomy over their operations once the Senate confirms them. Ennis reports both to Congress and the Social Security commissioner, but neither engages directly in hiring or policy decisions.
Federal watchdogs also are monitored by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), which sets government-wide policies and investigates complaints of misconduct against them.
The group's chairwoman, Allison Lerner, also the watchdog for the National Science Foundation, said in an interview that "while I cannot comment on any specific inspector general, we have a time-tested process for handling allegations of misconduct against inspectors general or their direct reports."
Ennis was named earlier this year to the council's Integrity Committee, which is in charge of any investigations. Any member who is the subject of an inquiry must recuse themselves, Lerner said.
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The Washington Post's Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.