Administrative Law Judge Edwin Pearson hadn’t intended to speak up on that September day in 2010. He’d come to a New York City Council committee hearing about welfare caseloads as a curious spectator. But as the testimony unfolded, he decided he could no longer remain silent.
“I came today to just listen,” Pearson told members of the council’s Committee on General Welfare. “I hadn’t planned to testify because I’m still an employee of the system. But I really couldn’t go home tonight and sleep properly after I’ve heard all the testimony that’s been given today.”
Pearson spent 15 years presiding over appeals from welfare recipients seeking to have sanctions removed in what’s called a fair hearing.
The council hearing had been called to address an unusual phenomenon: During the recession, public assistance caseloads in New York City didn’t grow at all, even though unemployment and homelessness increased and food stamp and Medicaid enrollment shot up.
In an interview, Pearson said he felt compelled to speak up when he heard then Hurman Resources Administration Commissioner Robert Doar state that public assistance caseloads hadn’t increased because the city hadn’t been hit as hard by the recession as other parts of the country.
Pearson said Doar “rarely recognized all the underlying problems in the way the clients are treated.”
Doar declined to discuss Pearson’s assertions or the hearing.
Pearson told the committee members that what he saw daily in his job corroborated allegations made by the critics: HRA was sanctioning people inappropriately and in large numbers, making it difficult for them to apply for and stay on welfare. [see here for more on sanctions]
He said his disillusionment with the system had grown over the years as he listened day after day to recipients and officials battling it out in fair hearings.
Pearson’s comments at the hearing weren’t his first attempt to bring attention to the problems he saw in the way the city administered welfare assistance.
Beginning in 2006, he began writing a series of memos to city and state officials detailing his complaints but said he received no meaningful response.
His spur-of-the-moment comments during the committee hearing did provoke a response from his employer: Officials in the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance began disciplinary proceedings against Pearson. In all, the OTDA filed five charges against Pearson stemming from his decision to speak out during the council hearing. The charges including a claim that he misrepresented himself by making it appear that he was speaking on behalf of the agency during the hearing.
According to Pearson, the OTDA initially sought to suspend him for a month without pay.
Pearson appealed the proposed suspension and was ultimately suspended four days without pay and he agreed to retire, according to the final settlement agreement from August 2011. He retired at then end of 2011.
Pearson’s mission to bring attention to the problems he saw in the system while presiding over fair hearing cases in the city for more than a decade has turned into almost an obsession. He often reviews his old documents and contacts advocates and reporters in hopes they can spark more change within the system than he could.
“The reason I cannot let go of my mission is that I believe that no one really wants to solve the underlying problems,” Pearson, 78, said. “Needless to say, I am being more and more discouraged for the chances of anything getting done.”