GOP senators to oppose Social Security nominee until probe of $300M computer contract resolved

Government And Institutions Associated Press

A group of Republican senators said Wednesday they will try to block President Barack Obama's pick to head the Social Security Administration until an investigation of a troubled computer contract is concluded.

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All 11 Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee signed a letter to the nominee Wednesday. They said there is evidence Social Security officials may have misled Congress and investigators about problems with a $300 million computer program that doesn't work.

Obama nominated acting Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin to a six-year term in June. Colvin was deputy commissioner for three and-a-half years. She has been acting commissioner since February 2013.

"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," wrote the senators, led by Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the committee.

"Therefore," the senators wrote to Colvin, "it is essential to address your role with respect to this inquiry before each of us can make an informed decision on how to vote for your nomination once it reaches the full Senate for consideration."

A Social Security spokeswoman said in an email: "Carolyn W. Colvin is not personally the subject of any criminal investigation."

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"Agency representatives previously briefed members of the Senate and House regarding the issues raised in the Senate Republican Finance members' letter," said the agency spokeswoman, LaVenia LaVelle. "The acting commissioner will respond timely and fully to the members' requests, and continue to cooperate with Congress and any related investigation."

LaVelle noted that the agency just received the senators' letter Wednesday afternoon.

Social Security officials have acknowledged that the agency spent nearly $300 million on a computer project that doesn't work. The agency, however, is trying to revive it. The program is supposed to help workers process and manage claims for disability benefits.

Six years ago, Social Security embarked on an aggressive plan to replace outdated computer systems overwhelmed by a growing flood of disability claims. But the project has been racked by delays and mismanagement, according to an internal report commissioned by the agency.

The project is still in the testing phase, and the agency can't say when it will be operational or how much it will cost.

In the meantime, people filing for disability claims face long delays at nearly every step of the process — delays that were supposed to be reduced by the new processing system.

The Associated Press reported on the computer problems in July. In September, the Finance Committee voted 22-2 to advance Colvin's nomination to the full Senate.

"Since doing so, additional troubling information has come to our attention regarding SSA's mismanagement of the (computer project) that may bear on your qualifications to serve as commissioner," the senators wrote to Colvin.

The senators cited a report by the inspector general for Social Security "that raised, but did not resolve, a variety of issues including possible actions by SSA officials to mislead both the Congress and the inspector general about the deficiencies in the development of the" computer project.

The investigation has since been turned over to the inspector general for the Small Business Administration to avoid any conflict with Social Security's investigator, said Finance Committee aides.

Republican senators could delay a vote on Colvin's nomination, making it difficult for Democrats to confirm her before the end of the year. The Senate is expected to adjourn for the year as soon as next week.

The Republicans take control of the chamber in January, and Hatch will become chairman of the Finance Committee.

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