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Colvin defends her tenure at Social Security

Colvin defends her tenure at Social Security
President Obama is set to nominate Carolyn W. Colvin, acting Social Security commissioner, to the permanent post. (Getty Images)

A day after Republicans threw her confirmation to lead the Social Security Administration into question, Carolyn W. Colvin outlined a series of steps the agency is taking to address more than $1 billion in erroneous payments identified by auditors in recent years.

Colvin, who has served as the agency's acting commissioner since early last year, told The Baltimore Sun on Thursday that she has made integrity in the mammoth disability program a focus of her administration. And the longtime Marylander defended herself from criticism leveled by Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee over a troubled $300 million computer contract.

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"I came here to do a job, to serve the American public, to manage this organization as well as I know how and to get it on a path of sustainability," Colvin said in an interview that had been scheduled before the new questions about the computer system arose. "That's what I'm going to do."

Colvin, who joined Social Security as a clerk in 1963, breezed through her hearing before the Finance Committee in August and appeared to have broad bipartisan support for confirmation to lead the Woodlawn-based agency. At one point, she had been considered a candidate for a voice vote — equivalent to unanimous approval.

But on Wednesday, all 11 Republicans on the committee signed a letter raising objections over an inspector general's investigation into a dysfunctional computer system and whether agency officials misled Congress and auditors about the extent of the problem.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the senior Republican on the committee, has placed a formal hold on her confirmation, complicating efforts to approve her this year.

Colvin said she will answer "forthrightly" a series of questions posed by the Republican senators by Monday.

"Many of the same questions they're asking now we already answered prior to my hearing," she said. "Other than that, there's not much I can say because it's an open investigation."

The six-year-old, $300 million computer program was intended to speed the processing of disability claims, but auditors say it has been able to handle only 700 out of millions of claims.

Aides have long noted that the program was implemented under Colvin's predecessor, Bush appointee Michael J. Astrue. And they have said that Colvin began a thorough investigation of the matter when she took over the agency last year.

What Hatch and other Republicans say concerns them now is an investigation that has since come to light into whether Social Security officials "misled or withheld any information from the Congress" about the scope of the problem.

To avoid a conflict of interest, the investigation is being conducted by the inspector general for the U.S. Small Business Administration. A spokesman for that agency was unable to answer questions about the probe.

"We cannot in good faith allow a nomination for any position that requires the advice and consent of the Senate to proceed to a vote as long as the specter of a potential criminal investigation surrounds the nominee and/or those in their inner circle," Hatch and the other Republicans wrote Wednesday.

Democrats who have been widely supportive of Colvin said they, too, want to see how the agency answers questions raised in the letter before deciding how to proceed.

"I think all senators will want to see her responses before acting on that nomination," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat. "As for the underlying investigation, I won't comment until the process runs its full course and the facts are known."

A spokeswoman for Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and member of the Finance Committee, described Colvin as an outstanding public servant. However, Sue Walitsky said, "We are reviewing the information and will wait for Monday's response to the letter."

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President Barack Obama nominated Colvin in June. If she is confirmed, her six-year term would carry into the next presidential administration. A White House spokesman said Thursday that the administration continues to believe Colvin deserves a confirmation vote from the Senate.

The opposition, coming as it has in the waning days of a lame-duck Senate soon to be controlled by Republicans, appears to have significantly undermined Colvin's chances of confirmation.

Congress is set to adjourn as soon as next week, and the Senate calendar is rapidly filling up as lawmakers attempt to approve a government funding bill by Dec. 11.

While senators have sped through several confirmations since the midterm elections, they have dealt mainly with uncontroversial appointments.

When the new Congress convenes next month, Hatch is expected to become chairman of the Finance Committee. If the Senate does not confirm Colvin before then, she will have to reappear before the panel to keep her nomination alive.

On Thursday, Colvin stressed that the agency is acting to deal with fraudulent payments, another concern raised by Capitol Hill critics. Colvin said she is expanding the number of teams investigating disability claims from 25 to 32, including a new unit in Baltimore.

The agency is also seeking a rule change to require applicants to submit all medical documentation, not just information that supports their claim.

The effort follows recent high-profile fraud cases involving disability insurance, including one in New York City in which former police and firefighters collected more than $800,000 in payments.

The Government Accountability Office estimated last year that 36,000 people received improper payments worth $1.3 billion over two years.

Though that's a big number, Colvin said fraud represents a small fraction of the $140 billion in disability coverage Social Security paid to nearly 11 million beneficiaries last year.

"We have demonstrated that we are a good, efficiently run organization," she said. "Although even one case of fraud is too much, I think we still have a minimum amount of fraud in the program."

Colvin, a Morgan State University graduate, became deputy commissioner for programs and policy in 1996 and deputy commissioner of operations in 1998.

Colvin, 72, also served as Maryland's secretary of human resources from 1989 to 1994 under Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

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