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Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Decent Man, Smeared

By tristero

These days, Americans are so used to getting their news skewed to the right (if not the extreme right) that most of it just washes over us; we may know the water is polluted, but we still think it’s ok to swim in it, at least briefly. Every once in a while, though, a tsunami comes down the pike and sweeps us off our feet.

For me, this disgraceful article is one of them. Under the headline, “Disability-Claim Judge Has Trouble Saying ‘No.’Near-Perfect Approval Record; Social-Security Program Strained,” we read:
Americans seeking Social Security disability benefits will often appeal to one of 1,500 judges who help administer the program, where the odds of winning are slightly better than even. Unless, that is, they come in front of David B. Daugherty.

In the fiscal year that ended in September, the administrative law judge, who sits in the impoverished intersection of West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio, decided 1,284 cases and awarded benefits in all but four. For the first six months of fiscal 2011, Mr. Daugherty approved payments in every one of his 729 decisions, according to the Social Security Administration.

The judge has maintained his near-perfect record despite years of complaints from other judges and staff members. They say he awards benefits too generously and takes cases from other judges without their permission.

Staffers in the Huntington office say he hears a disproportionate number of cases filed by one area attorney. Mr. Daugherty has been known to hold hearings for as many as 20 of this lawyer's clients spaced 15 minutes apart.
Note the all-too-familiar themes of right-wingism: activist judges, waste of taxpayers’ money, welfare cheats. Note also the insinuation of an improper relationship between the judge and one lawyer who brings a "disproportionate number" of the cases to him. The lawyer is making lots of money from these cases; the article implies that perhaps the judge could be getting a little bite of all those fees. And if you click on the link, you’ll also find a very authoritative-appearing graph demonstrating that Judge Daugherty’s approval rate for disability claims is an extreme “outlier.” Very few judges grant anywhere near the number of claims he does.

Ok. In a sane world, what Judge Daugherty is doing would bring out comparisons to this man. Of course, the situations and people are radically different - America is not Nazi-occupied Poland and Judge Daugherty, whatever his flaws, appears to be nowhere as complex and flamboyant a character as Oskar Schindler - but somewhere in both men resides a deep core of common human decency. The judge seems to be doing what he can to ease the burden of some of the most forsaken and dispossessed people in one of the most forsaken and dispossessed regions in America, Not only is he providing relief to the disabled, but he is also doing what he can to make the convoluted process of obtaining that relief more manageable. As for the canard that what he is doing "strained" Social Security, read the article and take note of the level of benefits: we're talking peanuts.

As an American, a taxpayer, and a human being, I have absolutely no problem with any of this. The Judge Daugherty that emerges from this article sounds like an extraordinary man - in spite of the clear intent to publish an article that implies otherwise..

This is an insidious piece of journalism. There is not one single example - not one - of Judge Daugherty making an erroneous decision, of providing benefits to someone who didn’t deserve them. That is because he hasn’t made one. How can I be so sure? Because if he had, you can bet your sweet bippy the Wall Street Journal reporter would have found out about it and reported it (More about the reporter in a moment). Yet the article gives you the distinct impression that he must have made mistakes, perhaps intentionally, perhaps for money. Perhaps the new investigation mentioned in the article will turn something up. If it does, and you can always find something amiss if you look hard enough, I think it is extremely unlikely that any close inquiry will find anything terribly serious. If the judge erred, he erred on the side of compassion.

Please understand: While an error in favor of compassion is the kind of mistake many people would enthusiastically agree with, there is not even a smidgeon of evidence that he made even that kind of an error! Nevertheless, the article implies he simply must have. Statistics and charts don’t lie, do they? Something must be up here. And it smells like money.

Which brings us to the clear insinuations that the judge is getting kickbacks from a sleazy lawyer: mrsocialsecurity.com, no less. The lawyer makes between $3,000 and $6,000 on each disability case he wins. Never mind that that’s about what a lawyer for Goldman Sachs makes in a couple of hours, at most, and the havoc that lawyer causes ends up costing American taxpayers way more than mrsocialsecurity.com does. But even so, let’s agree for the sake of argument that these fees are excessive, I don’t think they are for a minute, but let’s not get bogged down debating that, because regardless of whether they’re high or not, there is not a scintilla of evidence of any improper behavior on the lawyer’s part in charging and collecting such fees. More importantly, there is not even a ghost of that already non-existent scintilla of evidence that the judge was getting paid off by the lawyer.

It seems to me quite clear that, based upon the facts as presented, the judge and the lawyer were both expediting the approval and payment of disability payments that were, in fact, deserved. They were doing so for different reasons, perhaps, and the lawyer was making out ok from the deal, but that seems to be all they were doing. This would be a good thing to do anywhere. That it was being done in an area of high poverty, low education, and poor health services is downright admirable.

The article implies otherwise. The article implies that not only common human decency but also that streamlining the bureaucratic nightmare anyone who applies for government disability faces is somehow deeply suspicious.

One final point. It is clear from the thrust of the piece that it reflects the editorial stance of Rupert Murdoch and his fellow slimeballs. However, it is far from clear that the reporter is one of them - maybe he is, maybe not. There are numerous hints that reporter Damian Paletta thinks there is less to the story than Murdoch and Paletta's other bosses want to make of it - eg, the placement of the word “impoverished” in the opening sentences; the fact that not a single incident of so much as worrying behavior is reported, other than the mere opinion of a disgruntled former judge tellingly described as “Denying Dan” and some court officials who brought an obscure court rule to Daugherty's attention.

True, whether or not he held his nose when he wrote it - and I suspect he did - Damian got himself a long piece on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. It’s easy to criticize such behavior as careerism and opportunism and, to paraphrase the great James Walcott, I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t. It starkly illustrates how ambition trumps integrity. But I also understand the tradeoffs involved in pursuing any career at a high level. Perhaps Paletta thinks there are more important issues and that doing articles like this one are the only way he can appease his bosses and get to a position to write about them in a way that could make a difference.

I’d like to think so and that he will write genuinely serious investigative journalism in the future. I'd like to give him the benefit of a doubt, but if you aren't prepared to, I won't argue. It's just that the meanness of spirit behind this piece of character assassination is so deep-rooted, so cold, so vicious, and so impersonal that it is hard to believe that anyone who actually took the time to find out what was going on in Judge Daugherty’s courtroom would conclude there was anything at all amiss. This smells like an ideological hit job orchestrated by Murdoch, a thug in a custom-tailored suit that costs way more than that vulgar, money-grubbing Kentucky lawyer’s highest fees.

And that thug - Murdoch - is smearing a decent man at the end of a decent career, characterizing his most admirable intentions and decisions as unethical, if not immoral and criminal. Judge Daugherty deserves better.