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He Wants No Good Deed to Go Unpaid

The Social Security bureaucrat has been lauded for spotting payment errors. Now he's seeking a reward.

July 16, 2006|Joel Havemann | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — Traditionally, Americans like their heroes on the modest side, fearless and undaunted by adversity but generous and self-effacing in victory. Abraham Lincoln is the model, or Jimmy Stewart.

Ronald Cooley is a hero -- but not that kind. He's the sort who launches lonely crusades against the odds, risks his future to help thousands of people he does not even know, and receives high honors for his work. But instead of expressing modest gratitude, he goes to court demanding a big financial reward too.

When he gets money, he complains it isn't enough. And he immediately launches new campaigns, many new campaigns, and issues more demands for money.

Cooley, in short, is the sort who fights for justice, is often right and is sometimes a little hard to live with.

But the story of his long, successful fight to make life better for hundreds of thousands of America's poorest and most vulnerable residents -- as well as his parallel efforts to help the government save millions in tax dollars -- raises an uncomfortable question: Cooley may not warm the cockles of the heart, but could a more modest hero have accomplished what he has?

Cooley has been a midlevel bureaucrat in the Social Security Administration for more than 30 years. For much of that time, he has worked in the Philadelphia office as a quality control officer.

That meant making sure the agency's complex programs -- which serve retired workers, the disabled, the poor and their dependents, some 54 million in all -- worked the way they should and people got the benefits they were entitled to. Cooley was also supposed to root out waste and overpayment.

By all accounts, he has been zealous and effective, perhaps a tad too much so. Over the years, he has taken the agency to task for a long list of alleged failings, both underpayments and overpayments. He often turned out to be right, but the unrelenting, sharp-edged nature of his critiques has left bruises.

Today, he and some colleagues say, Cooley is regarded as a pariah by some of his superiors. And, he says, he is having an increasingly hard time getting them to listen.

"Social Security officials have made it very clear that they don't want to hear any more from me about agency mistakes," Cooley said. "When I bring up new groups of severely underpaid -- and in some cases severely overpaid -- beneficiaries, they ignore or dismiss my information. I have definitely been frozen out."

Social Security officials decline to comment on his standing within the agency, calling it a personnel matter.

Cooley, 56, describes himself as 5 feet 7 and 140 pounds -- "about the same size as Napoleon." He typically wears a black shirt and no tie, and rides his bike a mile to the office.

The case that made him a hero in many people's eyes began in 1994, when he uncovered what may rank among the great bureaucratic snarls in U.S. government history.

What Cooley found was evidence indicating that several hundred thousand individuals who were both poor and disabled had received smaller benefits than they were entitled to for many years. And that they probably were owed several billion dollars in back payments.

The problem arose because a computer program designed to identify those eligible for higher benefits was failing to flag a substantial number of cases.

He spotted the problem by pawing through paper records. Then, for seven years, he tried to explain his findings to his superiors and persuade them to act.

For a long time, he said, agency officials brushed him aside. The computer experts asked how a bureaucrat with no technical training could pinpoint weaknesses in such a sophisticated system. Others told Cooley he did not understand the policies governing the programs.

"They were patronizing," Cooley said, "and I was at a disadvantage because I didn't know squat about computers."

To answer his critics, Cooley taught himself enough about computers that he found 130,000 wrongly categorized recipients.

Social Security officials acknowledge that some 500,000 people may have received less than they were due. The agency has cleared about 112,000 such cases and paid back benefits -- a few hundred dollars in many cases, more than $200,000 in some -- to 73,000 of them.

The individual cases are mind-numbingly complex. Social Security Commissioner Jo Anne B. Barnhart has assigned 537 caseworkers to untangle the remaining ones, a task that may take until 2010 or beyond. Initially, Barnhart said, she estimated it would take four to eight hours for an expert to complete a case. Now, she has raised her estimate to 12 to 20 hours.

Cooley has told superiors that the agency has yet to recognize an additional 100,000 beneficiaries who were seriously underpaid because of the computer mistake -- a figure the agency said was exaggerated.

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