Senate finance chair calls for inspector general’s ouster
Sen. Ron Wyden on Thursday urged President Biden to remove Social Security Administration Inspector General Gail Ennis after a series of controversies and allegations of whistleblower retaliation.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on Thursday called on President Biden to remove a key government watchdog official over allegations that she had created a “hostile work environment” and retaliated against whistleblowers.
Social Security Administration Inspector General Gail Ennis has been embroiled in controversy since her Senate confirmation in 2019. Her office is responsible for oversight of the Social Security Disability Insurance program, which is at the center of widespread reports that the agency has been clawing back benefits from Americans who were paid too much money through no fault of their own, sparking a national outcry.
And since taking the reins at the Office of Inspector General, the agency subcomponent’s workforce morale has plummeted. According to the Partnership for Public Service’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, the office’s engagement and satisfaction score fell from 72.3 in 2018 to 38.7 in 2022, good for second worst among all federal agency subcomponents. Rankings based on the 2023 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey have not yet been released.
In a letter to President Biden, Wyden urged him to “remove” Ennis, arguing that she has been largely unresponsive to issues he has raised with her in recent years and noted that the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association issued a vote of “no confidence” in her leadership in 2021.
“I have written to Inspector General Ennis several times over the past three years demanding answers on this disturbing trend,” Wyden wrote. “Rather than taking accountability, Inspector General Ennis has provided empty promises, refused to acknowledge her shortcomings and attempted to discredit the whistleblowers she was found to have retaliated against.”
In 2022, an administrative law judge found that Ennis’ office retaliated against employee Debbie Shaw for making “protected disclosures,” qualifying her as a whistleblower. Last October, SSA OIG chief counsel and federal whistleblower coordinator Michelle Murray sued Shaw and another whistleblower for defamation, as well as The Washington Post for its reporting on their disclosures, seeking more than $1 billion in damages.
Wyden pointed to the ordeal, which culminated in a default finding against the agency last month, as to why Ennis should be removed from her post.
“Most concerningly, the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board has recently found that Inspector General Ennis and her leadership team have retaliated against one of her employees for blowing the whistle,” he wrote. “As you know, whistleblowers provide the American people an invaluable service, raising concerns of waste, fraud and abuse within the federal government, risking retaliation from their employer, colleagues or other accomplices. It is imperative that leaders across the entire federal government promote a workplace free of harassment, intimidation or retaliation. Inspector General Ennis has failed in this regard.”
In a statement, Rebecca Rose, a spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office, disputed Wyden’s characterization of their correspondence and MSPB’s ruling against the agency.
“Inspector General Ennis has been consistently and thoroughly responsive to Chairman Wyden, meeting with his staff and sending multiple letters regarding his concerns,” Rose said. “For example, on Sept. 1, 2023, IG Ennis sent a 71-page response addressing and refuting the issues Chairman Wyden raises in his letter to President Biden, including that the Merit Systems Protection Board did not find that IG Ennis or anyone in her leadership team retaliated against a whistleblower.”
In fact, the MSPB has adopted the administrative law judge’s findings against the agency, albeit only by default. Due to MSPB Acting Chairwoman Cathy Harris recusing herself from the case, the board lacked a quorum forcing the lone Senate-confirmed remaining board member, Raymond Limon, to adopt the judge’s findings as the board’s.
Ennis’ office has until March 5 to appeal the decision to federal circuit court.