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Baldwin talks transparency while keeping her secrets in Tomah VA scandal

By   /   March 11, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 18 of 47 in the series Tomah VA Scandal

UPDATED: 4:54 p.m. to include new information about U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s office’s handling of information about the problems at the Tomah VA medical center.

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. – The irony cannot be lost on U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

Can it?

The Madison Democrat, whose office dropped the ball on a report last year pointing to serious problems at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tomah, fired off a press release Tuesday night nodding and saying ‘Amen’ to the initial findings of a review that reiterated what Baldwin’s folks have known for some time.

“These initial findings substantiate the troubling concerns my office has heard from current and former employees and patients at the Tomah VA,” the senator said in the statement. “As the investigation builds on this troubling evidence and moves forward, it is critical that it be conducted in a detailed, thorough, and transparent manner.”

AP file photo

TAMMY’S SILENCE: U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., still isn’t talking about the incidents surrounding the firing of a staffer in the wake of a Veterans Affairs scandal.

But Baldwin has been anything but “transparent” in the weeks since she fired Marquette Baylor, the senator’s long-time deputy state director.

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 last month, Baylor refused the payout and has enlisted the help of attorneys.

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

Baldwin has not returned more than a dozen calls and emails to her D.C. office seeking comment.

She did tell USA Today in a brief interview that she is reviewing how her staff handled reports on the Tomah center.

“I am in a very detailed and careful fashion — comprehensive fashion — seeking to understand everything that happened in my office in terms of the handling of a whistleblower case,” Baldwin said. “And I will have lots more to say when we’ve come to the end of that process.”

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Dan Bice on Wednesday reported that one of the senator’s two staffers most directly involved in the VA issue has been moved off the detail.

“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,” Cheri Cannon, partner at Arlington, Va.-based Tully Rinckey PLLC, told Wisconsin Reporter last month.

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.

She said Baldwin is “clearly in damage control.”

In February, the Republican Party of Wisconsin filed an ethics complaint asking the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate Baldwin’s firing of Baylor to determine whether Baldwin acted unethically in offering a confidential severance package.

In a column this week, Bice reports that U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s office didn’t pass along whistleblower tips on the VA facility to the appropriate people on a Senate subcommittee. A staff member, however, tells Wisconsin Reporter the assertion is incorrect, that the information was forwarded to Johnson’s staff on the subcommittee.

The office of Baldwin, who was also on the subcommittee, had seen the report in summer 2014, but Baldwin did not reveal the report’s existence or any information about problems at Tomah to Sen. Johnson or the subcommittee staff, according to the staff member.

Baldwin has since called for the inspector general reports to be made public as a matter of course. Had that happened here, members of Congress and the press would have been able to look into the Tomah situation much sooner.

Melinda Schnell, Johnson’s communications director, told Bice that state staff did refer the case to Johnson’s appointees to the subcommittee,” but didn’t take the matter to Johnson.

“Because our subcommittee staff did not have the report, they did not, at the time, appreciate the severity of the problems at Tomah — nor did they bring the matter to the senator’s attention,” she is quoted as saying in the column.

One whistleblower said the offices of Johnson, Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, and Baldwin all dropped the ball, but Baldwin by far missed the most opportunities to do something.

Yet, Baldwin has, since the story first broke about the allegations, called for several investigations into the Tomah facility.

She made sure to comment again on the latest findings, released Tuesday, that detailed various unsafe practices at the center in psychiatric care and pain management. Medical staff extensively prescribed opiates and tranquilizers, according to the report.

“They would want you to take more drugs instead of finding something that would work. They would just give you something to basically say, ‘shut up,’” Jason Bishop, a former patient at the VA center, told Fox News.

He didn’t like returning for treatment because the sight of fellow veterans lining the hallways with “empty eyes” depressed him.

“They’re breeding drug addicts,” Bishop said.

 

While Baldwin remains tight-lipped about the involvement of her office, Bice points out she remains committed to fundraisers at the homes of big check-writing liberal lobbyists.

The senator says she wants accountability.

“I also believe that the final result of this investigation must include appropriate corrective action that brings accountability to those responsible for the problems at the Tomah VA and puts in place solutions to prevent these problems and tragedies from ever happening again,” Baldwin said in her press release following the latest review.

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.