He Wants No Good Deed to Go Unpaid

Times Staff Writer

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.

The problem Cooley unearthed resided in the overlap between two programs. The first provides pensions to some 8 million disabled workers and their dependents. The second, a welfare program called Supplemental Security Income, helps 5.9 million impoverished disabled people who have not worked enough to qualify for the pension program.

Disability pensions average $939 a month; the maximum SSI benefit is $603 a month.

Cooley demonstrated that there were flaws in the computer program developed in the 1970s to identify SSI recipients who might be entitled to the larger disability pension benefit.

For some, the difference was $20 a month -- a sum not trivial to many individuals living on the edge of subsistence.

For others, more was at stake.

Cyril Young and his wife, Treca, both in their mid-40s, are legally blind. The couple for years received SSI benefits and worked part time at a school for the blind in Vancouver, Wash.

About three years ago, Mike Teefy of the Social Security office in Vancouver -- armed with data developed by Cooley -- told the Youngs they had been entitled to the more generous pension program. The government paid the Youngs about $100,000 in back benefits.

"I have no complaints, but our children and grandchildren could have had a lot better life if we had received our fair share right along," Cyril Young said. "What a drastic difference it could have made in our lives."

In 1997, the Social Security Administration presented Cooley with an award in recognition of his "dedication and perseverance."

Those were qualities that showed up early in his life.

Born in Indiana and raised as an Air Force brat, he lived in Florida, Alaska and Virginia before his family settled in Michigan, where he earned a degree in philosophy from Oakland University.

John Immerwahr, now a philosophy professor at Villanova University, remembers Cooley as one who stood out because he seemed less interested in getting good grades than in debating the ideas presented in the course.

Cooley joined the Social Security Administration in 1973, cutting his teeth as a caseworker handling claims by West Virginia coal miners seeking black-lung benefits. Two years later, he was transferred to the quality control job in Philadelphia and immediately took the tack that would mark his career for the next three decades: finding flaws in the way his colleagues and superiors were doing things.

"From Day 1, I was writing up stuff that I thought should be corrected," he said.

His ideas, he said, were not always well-received.

For instance, he found a problem involving disabled people who applied for benefits retroactively. He said his money-saving proposal was shot down by headquarters as too complicated, though Congress later adopted a similar solution.

"It was my first experience with rejection," he said.

Again and again, Cooley found and complained of what he said were improper payouts of tax dollars -- some too small and some too large.

When the Social Security Administration honored Cooley, he reacted in characteristic fashion: Where others might have said thank you, Cooley complained that the recognition did not include a cash award. He appealed twice. In 2001, he received $25,000 for identifying the problem and last year got $20,000 more for helping devise new software.

Barnhart had approved $32,000 more, but the government's central Office of Personnel Management blocked it. Cooley is going to federal court.

"In this society, what shows you're getting a job done is being paid for it," he said. "That's the ultimate recognition."

Rick Warsinskey, president of the National Council of Social Security Management Assns., said: "The fact that he's gotten these large awards shows he's valued.

"Those who are ahead of the curve sometimes come up with more than the system can absorb. Sometimes it's a personality thing, but he's one of these creative people who make the agency run better."

Even in triumph, Cooley is still making waves -- identifying new potential problem cases faster than the Social Security Administration can clear up the old ones.

And Cooley is busy uncovering other cases of alleged injustice. For instance, he said, he has found 11,034 elderly and disabled widows and widowers who have been underpaid $120 million in pension benefits.

"We've been trying for over a year just to get the agency to recognize that one," he said, "and 1,372 of them have died in the meantime."

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