Social Insecurity

When Robert Rodriguez decided to turn whistleblower and raise a stink about abuses in his federal workplace, he became public enemy number one

"They didn't realize who Bob is," Wheeler says of Rodriguez. "He isn't a sheep; he won't just lay down, even when they try to fire him or intimidate him."

Egged on by Wheeler, Rodriguez decided to recast his three-year-old complaints about his obscure federal workplace into a public campaign. He fired off a barrage of letters to senior SSA officials in Birmingham and Atlanta and sought an investigation through the office of U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw (R-Hollywood), chairman of the Congressional Oversight Committee on Social Security.

Rodriguez was roundly ignored by officials and by Shaw, who forwarded the allegations to U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Miramar) in June, washing his hands of the potential morass. Hastings, in turn, wrote to Rodriguez to say the allegations had been forwarded to Shaw. Rodriguez heard nothing more.

Regularly escorted to the restroom by a federal cop, Robert Rodriguez believes his boss is using intimidation to make him quit
Joshua Prezant
Regularly escorted to the restroom by a federal cop, Robert Rodriguez believes his boss is using intimidation to make him quit

Rodriguez also filed a complaint in late April with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration claiming that workers in the TSC may have been exposed to a blood-borne pathogen.

OSHA is charged with investigating unsafe working conditions, either in other government agencies or in private businesses, and its officials took Rodriguez seriously. In written orders they gave Shupler 30 days to respond to the Rodriguez complaint with a report describing what had happened while Ty Keon worked in the TSC. Shupler was asked to investigate the matter, by now five months old.

In late May, Shupler asked for 30 more days to complete her investigation, the maximum allowed.

Finally in late June, almost 60 days after OSHA officials asked Shupler for an explanation, she filed an official response: No investigation was required because nobody had been exposed, she claimed. She still didn't say to what her workers may or may not have been exposed by the late Keon.

"As you stated in your letter," she wrote to OSHA officials, "there is an allegation of "numerous exposure incidents as defined by OSHA Bloodborne Pathogens regulations.' The Fort Lauderdale SSA office investigation of this matter in November, 1999, revealed that there had been no "exposure incident,' as defined by the OSHA regulations.

"We assume that the incidents… involved a now deceased SSA employee. On five occasions, in late July and early August of 1999, this employee became ill (involving vomiting and diarrhea). A GSA employee, a cleaning lady, wearing protective rubber gloves cleaned up after the sick employee. Even if the diarrhea or vomit contained visible blood or bloodborne pathogens… there was no physical contact with these substances and SSA employees."

Therefore, Shupler concluded, "it appears that SSA has no special duties as an employer under the OSHA regulations."

She also advised OSHA officials not to tell Rodriguez or other employees the full story. "A general description of SSA's investigation to the complainant without more detail, perhaps stating only that there was no "exposure incident,' may be warranted in this case," she wrote.

OSHA accepted Shupler's explanation and dropped the investigation.Meanwhile Rodriguez's initial 14-day suspension was extended to 11 weeks, though he was paid a full salary for nine of those weeks. He was allowed to return to work on June 26 and placed under the constant watch of federal police.

"Why didn't they fire me?" Rodriguez asks rhetorically. "Because they couldn't. My opinion is that it shows how weak their case is and how much they have to hide." Instead of firing him, he claims, his bosses want to force him out of his job by intimidation.

SSA officials in Fort Lauderdale and Atlanta would not discuss any of the complaints or the claims made about them or the Fort Lauderdale TSC. Reached by telephone Shupler was happy to provide general details about the SSA -- for example, she reported that the three teleservice centers in the southeastern United States last year answered more than seven million telephone calls. And she read from a Social Security handbook when asked what her office does: "Our mission, and I'm quoting here, is "to promote the economic security of the nation's people through compassionate and vigilant leadership and shaping and managing American social security programs.'"

Asked directly about Rodriguez and his allegations, Shupler snapped: "I will discuss none of those things with you."

Instead she directed questions to the agency's Freedom of Information Act specialists in Baltimore. They will discuss none of the allegations either. Specialist Ethyl Burrows said in late July that she had received a New Times Freedom of Information Act request concerning Rodriguez. She would talk about none of the reported problems.

"We have just scratched the surface of what you want, some of this might be subject to the privacy act, some might be communications between attorneys and so forth, which are privileged, none of this falls into the realm of things which would be automatically considered public information."

The computerized records showing employees' time on the phone, she says -- information which would show who was working when -- "are definitely not public." Neither is any information about Ty Keon, the employee who died.

Until last week the tense summer atmosphere in the Teleservice Center regarding Rodriguez hadn't changed, according to one of the employees. "They watch anybody who talks to him," she said. "If you go stand near his desk, you see [the cop] eyeballing you."

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