Social Security top official often impaired at work, witnesses tell investigators

When the Social Security Administration’s inspector general investigated allegations earlier this year that one of the agency’s senior leaders was routinely impaired on the job, six witnesses painted an alarming picture.

Theresa Gruber, deputy commissioner overseeing around 9,000 employees and a $1.2 billion budget in the hearings and appeals operation, displayed “significant anomalies” at work over the course of at least a year, including slurred speech in which she “appeared intoxicated,” leaving meetings without notice, slouching in her chair and aggressive behavior, witnesses told investigators.

But five months after acting Social Security commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi was presented with the internal report, which The Washington Post obtained, Gruber remains on the job. The allegations by witnesses were corroborated to The Post by three members of Gruber’s senior staff, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.

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

Gruber, who was not interviewed by investigators contrary to standard practice in administrative probes, declined to comment on this story.

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

Witnesses told investigators that whatever the cause, Gruber’s conduct has affected her management of the agency’s Office of Hearings Operations, which runs one of the largest administrative judicial systems in the world.

One high-ranking official interviewed by The Post described a “rudderless” department under Gruber, who sometimes does not communicate with her staff for days at a time, the official said. “Ella She is MIA, and they’re not holding anyone accountable,” said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss matters publicly. Another official described “delays to decision-making” and important meetings and difficulty getting Gruber’s attention — factors they say threaten the department’s mission to conduct impartial hearings and issue decisions on appeals involving retirement and survivor and disability benefits for poor and elderly Americans.

“If you can’t do this job anymore, honestly, you should be raising your hand to say, ‘I can’t do 100 percent anymore,’ ” said another person on Gruber’s staff, who expressed frustration that “nothing has been done .”

The investigation, designated a “preliminary inquiry” before it was sent to Kijakazi in February, took place ace Social Security faces heightened scrutiny on Capitol Hill, with the agency struggling to fully restart its field operations after a more than two-year closure during the pandemic and its inspector general facing multiple probes into huge fines the office imposed on disabled and elderly people.

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

Kijakazi, whom President Biden named acting commissioner a year ago, has also had a strained relationship with Ennis, whose office is charged with oversight of 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’s staff is investigating Ennis’s management of an antifraud program that inflated penalties as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars against poor, elderly and disabled claimants accused of taking 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 paused indefinitely.

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

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

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

Hinkle defended the work of Gruber’s department during her tenure, writing that “wait times for disability benefits hearings have steadily decreased from a high in 2017 and the number of hearings pending is approaching a 21-year low.”

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

Experts on federal government operations said the apparent inaction could lead employees to hesitate to report management problems in the future.

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

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

Her department manages half a million hearings and appeals a year for claimants seeking disability, retirement and survivor benefits, with more than 1,500 administrative law judges and staffers in 10 regions and close to 170 local hearing offices.

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

Those staffers also called her an outspoken manager who can be gruff and more recently crossed a line into “intense anger…often for unimportant issues,” the report said. The witnesses described escalating problems at work, conduct that “appears to have been common knowledge” in her department, investigators wrote. Her demeanor of her would sometimes improve, though only sporadically.

Some on Gruber’s staff witnessed her unable to recall things that were just stated or decisions she had recently made, according to the inspector general’s report. They described needing to remind her of her meetings on her calendar or her not showing up to meetings altogether. Sometimes she would get upset during meetings, log off, then fail to return phone calls or emails when staffers tried to contact her.

One employee told investigators that some of Gruber’s aides would resort to preventing her from “making significant decisions” on days when she acted impaired. Others said she had begun delegating decisions.

The behavior was witnessed in meetings large and small on Microsoft Teams, the videoconference software Social Security has used to communicate during the pandemic. In attendance were regional chief judges, regional management officers and administrative law judges, the report said. Some employees were so alarmed during gatherings that they would send instant messages questioning her behavior and speculating about whether she had been drinking, according to investigators.

One person on Gruber’s staff told investigators that her behavioral changes extended “beyond their professional interactions” and involved after-hours personal calls in which she seemed impaired, the report said.

It is unclear why Ennis’s staff did not interview Gruber, a customary 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 asking for a written response explaining “the final disposition or administrative action to be taken.” The report said the inspector general’s office took “no position” on “the imposition of administrative actions” against Gruber.

The investigation was not released publicly.

Inspectors general have varying practices on disclosing reports on senior leaders as they seek a balance between protecting staff privacy and exposing harmful conduct. If a leader can’t perform their job, it violates one of the key principles of the federal merit system to “manage employees efficiently and effectively.” The more senior the leader, the less privacy they tend to be afforded, said several inspectors general who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

In cases when an employee displays conduct that affects their ability to work, it is standard practice at federal agencies for managers to ask their personnel departments to do an internal review, then recommend that the employee take medical leave to address the issue, particularly in cases of drug or alcohol abuse, according to experts on federal government operations and written policies.

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

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

Investigations conducted by the inspector general are “not public documents,” the spokeswoman wrote, a policy at odds with major watchdog offices in the federal government.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Leave a Comment