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Legal expert says U.S. Sen Tammy Baldwin is in full ‘damage control’

By   /   February 20, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 2 of 47 in the series Tomah VA Scandal
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UNDER FIRE: U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, is under fire for not immediately demanding an investigation into a Veterans Affairs Medical Center when allegations of wrongdoing first came to light

 

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — Despite being dogged by a growing scandal over the firing of a top staffer, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin has in recent weeks aggressively responded to allegations of criminal wrongdoing at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The Wisconsin Democrat most recently called on the U.S. Department of Justice to launch an immediate investigation into the facility amid reports that staff overprescribed opiate-based medications at deadly levels.

Baldwin is sending out a lot of news releases on Tomah these days.

“What should she have done when she first got that document (inspection report) is exactly what she’s doing now. If she had, maybe people wouldn’t be dead,” said Cheri Cannon, partner at Arlington, Va.-based Tully Rinckey PLLC.

Cannon, who has more than two decades of experience in the federal government, including extensive experience as a senior attorney and member of the Senior Executive Service, joined the law firm’s nationally recognized federal labor and employment practice group a little over a year ago.

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WHISTLEBLOWER PROTECTOR: Legal expert Cheri Cannon says U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s attempted confidentiality agreement with a fired employee is nothing unusual in the federal government culture.

She knows her stuff, and she can see that Baldwin is “clearly in damage control.”

On Thursday, the Republican Party of Wisconsin filed an ethics complaint asking the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate Baldwin’s firing last month of Marquette Baylor, who headed up the senator’s Milwaukee office.

Baylor was let go after investigative reports broke in early January about the Tomah VA medical center’s pain-killer prescribing practices, now alleged to have led to the deaths of three veterans.

Baldwin’s office, according to reports, did nothing with an inspector general’s report last year detailing the concerns, and refused to act when a whistleblower reportedly begged Baldwin’s office to do something.

Baldwin has said nothing about Baylor’s termination, nor the hefty severance package — with a confidentiality clause — offered to the aide. As Wisconsin Reporter first reported earlier this week, Baylor refused the payout and has enlisted the help of attorneys.

The senator’s surrogates have blamed Baylor for botched handling of the reports.

“As part of a massive cover-up, Tammy Baldwin wrongly appropriated taxpayer funds to compensate a Senate employee who would not have performed official government duties while also fraudulently offering a contract to silence a former employee in order save Baldwin’s own political career,” alleges the complaint, signed by Republican Party of Wisconsin Executive Director Joe Fadness.

Baldwin has brought in Democrat political fixer Mark Elias to deal with the messy situation for a first-term senator — the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate — who has had relatively easy sledding in the media up until now.

In 2011, Politico named Elias to its list of 50 politicos to watch. The publication described the attorney as “quick-talking, Twitter-savvy.” Elias has represented a “veritable who’s who of Democratic power players, from Sens. Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to a trio of new outside groups with close ties to party leaders that are angling to spend tens of millions of dollars on ads attacking Republicans in the 2012 elections — Majority PAC, House Majority PAC and American Bridge,” Politico wrote.

On Thursday, Elias’ job was to say the Wisconsin GOP is full of it, that its complaint was nothing more than a “political stunt.”

“This is a frivolous allegation wholly without merit,” he said in an email statement to Politico. “It is unfortunate that the Republican Party has made the choice to play partisan politics with the serious and tragic issues facing the VA and our veterans.”

Cannon, who represents federal agency players in troubled legal situations, said the GOP is barking up the wrong tree. If there was no payout, if Baylor didn’t take the severance deal, then there’s no taxpayer money at stake.

The attorney said confidentiality agreements in severance packages are certainly not a rarity between government employees and a government managers trying to protect themselves.

But Baylor didn’t take the deal, and that could spell trouble for Baldwin eventually.

“This woman either didn’t tell Baldwin anything and did a terrible job or (the senator) knows this woman knew Baldwin knew about the problems and did nothing. It’s all going to come out in the wash,” Cannon said.

While Elias earlier this week claimed Baylor had a record of performance problems during her tenure with Baldwin, the veteran political aide’s resume would suggest otherwise.

Before taking the position as Baldwin’s deputy state director, Baylor served on former Wisconsin Democrat U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl’s staff for more than a decade.

“You don’t work for that guy for a decade and have employment performance problems. If you do, you get fired,” Cannon said.

Surrounding the firing scandal are reports that Baylor may have felt discriminated against as one of the few high-ranking heterosexuals on Baldwin’s staff.

Baldwin would definitely want to make that claim go away, Cannon said.

The attorney represents employees seeking whistleblower protection, including those retaliated against in what Cannon describes as the VA “fiefdom.”

She said the Veterans Affairs system is by design too enamored with its doctors, in large part because it is so difficult to recruit physicians to work in the public sector for much less money than they’d make in the private sector. Some are altruistic and good at what they do. Others are not, and have nowhere else to go.

Cannon said the Tomah story is just an example of a national health care system for veterans that is anything but accountable.

“Doctors are like gods. What they say goes,” she said. “Even if someone has concerns about a doctor overprescribing drugs, no one is going to question him.”

Whistleblowers at the Tomah VA facility, described as “Candy Land,” said retaliation was a common practice.

“For the most part, employees who work at VA hospitals don’t have any kind of appeal rights if they get fired. They’re not standard civil servants. If they get fired they don’t have an appeal channel outside the VA,” Cannon said.

“These people are like captives in this system. They don’t complain. They don’t whistleblow. When they do, you see what happens. It creates a culture where whistleblowing is not tolerated and reprisals are part of it because (the administrators) always get away with it.”

Part of 47 in the series Tomah VA Scandal
  1. After damaging silence, Baldwin now calls for probe of troubled VA center
  2. Legal expert says U.S. Sen Tammy Baldwin is in full ‘damage control’
  3. Baldwin aide breaks silence, alleges senator engaged in ‘coverup’
  4. Baldwin’s public relations team kicks into high gear following ethics complaint
  5. Ethics watchdog urges Senate committee to investigate Baldwin
  6. Tammy Baldwin’s political fixer is helping Hillary attack voter ID
  7. Senate committee asking if FBI missed the call in veteran’s death at VA
  8. When lawmakers failed Wisconsin’s veterans
  9. Is political pressure behind Lin Ellinghuysen’s differing accounts on VA memo?
  10. Bernie Sanders failed to act in deadly VA scandal, whistleblower says
  11. Does government union chief’s threat show AFGE’s hand on veterans care?
  12. What would Russ Feingold’s 1992 self say to the 2015 version?
  13. Ad attacking Feingold asserts veterans died because of ‘politicians who looked the other way’
  14. Feingold’s campaign caught up in VA scandal memo war
  15. PolitiFact Wisconsin trusts Russ Feingold to deliver its facts
  16. Sources: Ron Kind received call from Jason Simcakoski not long before Marine’s tragic death
  17. Captain Campaign Finance Reform, Russ Feingold, changes ‘dark money’ tune
  18. Baldwin talks transparency while keeping her secrets in Tomah VA scandal
  19. Ron Kind knew about Tomah VA abuse years before the story broke
  20. Ron Kind now solving Tomah VA scandal one press release at a time
  21. Tammy Baldwin silent on her failures as she blasts Tomah VA medical center
  22. Tomah VA whistleblower says he’s getting pressure from unhappy Dems
  23. Feingold’s facts fail again in face of Tomah scandal
  24. Senate field hearing to shine more light on Tomah VA scandal
  25. Tomah VA supervisor accused of misconduct gets promoted
  26. Senate hearing to look deeper into scandal-plagued Tomah VA hospital
  27. Kind flees questions, Senate committee turns up heat on Tomah VA hospital scandal
  28. Report: Tomah VA hospital story is one of ‘systemic failures’
  29. Tomah VA hospital whistleblower: ‘It will not change’
  30. Ron Kind breaks silence on call from veteran victim at Tomah VA hospital
  31. VA union holds rally to save itself, Tomah whistleblower says
  32. Sound familiar? Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth accused of retaliation at VA
  33. Emails say Tomah VA patient reached out to Feingold, Kind, in 2008 about abuse
  34. Johnson: Hold accountable those who put Tomah veterans at risk of HIV, hepatitis
  35. Veteran jumps out of third-floor window at Tomah VA hospital
  36. Tomah VA employee: ‘We have forgotten who we work for’
  37. Congressional committees want answers on Tomah VA hospital
  38. Senators ask Pence, Trump transition team, to hold troubled VA accountable
  39. Veterans advocate: VA hospitals’ ‘improvement’ doesn’t tell whole story
  40. Tomah VA Medical Center’s ‘Candy Man’ stripped of license
  41. Opinions differ on whether it’s ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ at Tomah VA
  42. Latest data show Tomah VA hospital improving in opioid prescriptions, veteran satisfaction
  43. VA secretary nominee faces little resistance, lots of challenges
  44. Insiders: Tomah VA troubles continue with nurse shortage, neglectful care
  45. VA whistleblower has questions for Congressman Ron Kind
  46. Johnson brings back whistleblower protection bill as Sunshine Week opens
  47. Iraq war veteran burned by ‘very frustrating process’ at VA

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M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.