Transcript: Audit Report on Threats Against SSA Employees

 

Ashley Moore: Hello. My name is Ashley Moore and I’m an auditor with the Dallas Audit Division in Dallas Texas. I have been with the Office of the Inspector General for seven years. Today I would like to talk to you about an audit I worked on regarding threats against Social Security Administration or SSA employees.

Preventing workplace violence is a serious and growing concern.  Public interest and media attention have focused on recent incidences of violence at Federal facilities such as the airplane attack on an IRS facility in Austin, Texas in February 2010, and the Pentagon shooting that occurred in October 2010.

Other recent examples of workplace-related violence highlight the nature of potential threats faced by SSA’s employees.  For instance, in January 2010, a gunman opened fire in a Las Vegas federal courthouse.  Authorities believed the gunman was motivated by anger over perceived cuts to his Supplemental Security Income payments.  The man walked into the courthouse lobby, pulled a shotgun from underneath his jacket, and began shooting.  Security officers returned fire and killed the gunman, but not before he killed a Federal court security officer and injured a Deputy U.S. Marshal.

As more and more Americans turn to the government for financial assistance during times of economic challenge, the potential for threats and attacks against Federal workers increases as well. 

About a month after the Las Vegas shooting, Social Security employees in New York received a threatening letter with a suspicious white powder.  After nine workers came in contact with the substance, Social Security evacuated its NY regional offices.  SSA facilities in Maryland, California, Missouri, and Pennsylvania, along with the White House also received similar suspicious packages.   

SSA and its Office of the Inspector General take threat reports very seriously.  Managers are required to timely document all incidents that adversely affect the safety and security of SSA’s personnel, visitors, and property.  SSA electronically routes incident reports to Regional management and Security Coordinators.  SSA also required transmission of incident details to senior officials at our Headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland. 

Employees or supervisors can also report threats to law enforcement officials, including the OIG’s Office of Investigations.  I would like to highlight two recent examples of allegations our Office of Investigations acted upon quickly and brought to closure. 

After receiving a referral from the Gainesville, Georgia Social Security office, agents from our Atlanta office investigated a man for threatening employees after they told him he did not qualify for disability benefits.  Our agents worked with the ATF, Federal Protective Services; and local police.  We executed a search warrant at the man’s residence and arrested him for being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm.

After receiving a referral from the New Iberia, Louisiana Social Security office, agents from our Baton Rouge office investigated a Supplemental Security Income applicant who threatened an employee after his claim was denied.  Our investigation revealed that the man was the author of five anonymous letters that contained vicious, sexually graphic threats of bodily injury and death to a claims representative.  A forensic examination confirmed the man wrote the letters.  In December 2010, the man pled guilty to mailing threatening communications and was sentenced to five years in prison.

Employee safety is among the top priorities for the SSA OIG, and we continue to work diligently to ensure the safety of SSA’s dedicated employees.  As part of this effort, OIG field divisions offered assistance to field offices where threats have occurred; developed a strong working relationship with Federal Protective Service across the country; and worked with SSA to develop an employee-safety training video now available to SSA’s more than 50,000 field office workers.

Our Office of Audit has also contributed to the effort.  In November 2010, we released a report addressing SSA’s process for reporting and responding to threats against its employees or property.  We found that SSA has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of reported threats against its employees or property - more than doubling from about 1,000 threats in 2008 to nearly 2,200 threats in 2010. 

As part of our review, we conducted an e-mail survey of 2,500 randomly selected SSA personnel whose duties likely involved interaction with the public.  Over a one-month period, 2,141 employees provided survey responses. 

Though threats to SSA employees have increased in recent years, ninety-seven percent of respondents indicated they either always or usually felt safe while on the job.  In addition, ninety-one percent of respondents indicated they knew the procedures to follow if they were threatened at work. 

In conclusion, we offer two critical pieces of advice to Social Security’s front-line employees: First, employees should know their policies for reporting threats, and should always report threats or disturbances.  Second, employees must always be vigilant and aware of their surroundings.  Employees should be prepared to alert security or a supervisor if angry or agitated customers do not calm down. 

Finally, we reassure SSA’s dedicated employees that their safety is among our top priorities, and we will continue to work diligently with SSA as well as other local law enforcement agencies to ensure that they can safely carry out their critical mission now and into the future.