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.
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.”
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.
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