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Is political pressure behind Lin Ellinghuysen’s differing accounts on VA memo?

By   /   January 28, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

MADISON, Wis. — Lin Ellinghuysen swears she is telling the truth, that she is the victim of an aggressive reporter who misrepresented her and partisans politicizing her faulty memory related to a bombshell memo she wrote for Wisconsin congressional members seven years ago.

But is Ellinghuysen, the union chief caught up in a political controversy surrounding a tragic Veterans Affairs scandal, changing her story after feeling the heat from her government union that has made no secret about its devotion to liberal U.S. Senate candidate Russ Feingold?

While she denies feeling any pressure from Feingold or her labor organization, in an interview with Wisconsin Watchdog she acknowledged she received calls from the American Federation of Government Employees national office, that there were “a lot of people hearing there was going to be some kind of negative article on Feingold.”

Feingold, a long-time big labor backer, is running to take back the seat he lost in 2010 to Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican who is viewed by most unions as no friend to organized labor.

Ellinghuysen, president of the local chapter of the AFGE that represents employees at the embattled Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in an April 2009 memo outlined “significant” and “serious” concerns of excessive opioid prescriptions and abusive practices by top management.

Photo by AFGE

UNION DUES? The American Federation of Government Employees received some distressed calls about a story on Sen. Russ Feingold’s receipt of a union memo warning of ‘significant’ problems at the Tomah VA medical center.

USA Today reporter Donovan Slack broke the story last year that the memo was marked as having been “hand-delivered” to Democrats Rep. Ron Kind, then-congressman Dave Obey and then-Sen. Russ Feingold.

According to portions of the USA Today (Gannett) report in October:

“(M)any of the Veterans served at this facility are prescribed large quantities of narcotics,” Ellinghuysen wrote, adding that it had become a “significant” and “serious” concern. Ellinghuysen also said the center’s chief of staff at the time, Dr. David Houlihan, was ordering as many as 1,000 narcotic tablets per month for a single patient, and that pharmacists who raised concerns were disciplined and fired.

“Many of the patients call Dr. Houlihan ‘The Candy Man’ because of the easy access to narcotic drugs/medications at this facility,” she wrote….

But little was done to address the issue until earlier this year, when news reports detailed the problems and chronicled the circumstances surrounding the death of marine veteran Jason Simcakoski of Stevens Point.

Ellinghuysen told Slack she has no proof the memo was delivered.

“We assumed the documents had been delivered to several members of the Wisconsin delegation at that time, but we can’t confirm that they actually made it to those offices,” she said, adding that she had “mistakenly operated on that assumption.”

Feingold and the other Democrats insist they did not receive the memo.

“But earlier this year (2015), Ellinghuysen penned another memo recounting the concerns of the first and reiterating that the 2009 memo had been delivered to the lawmakers. She gave out that memo, marked ‘confidential,’ in meetings on Capitol Hill,” Donovan reported.

In an interview with Wisconsin Watchdog, Ellinghuysen reiterated she had asked Ben Balkum, president of a Michigan local AFGE chapter, to take the memo with him on a trip to Washington and give it to Wisconsin’s congressional delegation.

Balkum, according to Ellinghuysen, placed the memo down on a table at a congressional Veterans Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee meeting.

“He said if anyone was interested, they could take a copy,” Ellinghuysen said. “He has no idea who may have picked up a copy.”

So why mark the memo as being “hand-delivered” to the lawmakers? Ellinghuysen said she doesn’t know.

RELATED: Ron Kind knew about Tomah VA abuse years before the story broke

It’s not hard to imagine that an Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on the conduct of the VA would be very interested in such a memo.

And it was all a very big deal to Ellinghuysen, who was her local’s vice president at the time. She had long publicly discussed the power abuse at the medical center, particularly under Houlihan’s leadership.

By late spring 2009, Ellinghuysen said she hadn’t heard from the lawmakers’ offices, so she took her concerns to an investigator with the Juneau County Sheriff’s Department who was looking into the reported suicide of a staff psychologist at Tomah.

AP file photo

HMM? Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold’s campaign said he never received a memo on the Tomah facility from a union that has backed his campaigns for years.

In a recently released audio from that interview, Ellinghuysen suggests Feingold, Kind and Obey knew as early as summer 2008 that deaths were occurring due to the over prescription of opiates and painkillers in Tomah VA Hospital.

“I do believe that, though, the walls of Jericho are shaking a little bit right now because April of this year I wrote a letter to congressmen and senators,” Ellinghuysen told Detective Ben Goehring during the 2009 interview. The audio is included in a story this week by Daniel Bice of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 

But nothing came of the memo.

Ellinghuysen confessed she failed to follow up. She wishes she had, but she added she is no “courageous Wonder Woman.”

“People don’t understand. I was a part-time registered nurse there, and part-time union. I had a target on my back,” she said. “Like other employees here, I needed to keep a job. I needed a paycheck.”

“I did the best I could do and at the same time keep a job… It’s real easy for people to sit there and say, ‘Why didn’t you follow up and make contact with them?’”

So why didn’t she take the memo to Republican members of the congressional delegation?

“We didn’t even talk to Republicans then,” Ellinghuysen said, adding that as president of the local she makes a better effort these days of reaching out to all members of the delegation.

She said Slack wouldn’t listen to her explanations about the delivery of the memo after the reporter had received the document through a Freedom of Information Act request. Ellinghuysen said Slack “became upset with me. She said, ‘Why are you lying to me.’ I said, ‘I’m not lying.’ I don’t care who it is (Democrat or Republican). I’m going to tell the truth about it.”

Slack told Wisconsin Watchdog Thursday that she stands behind her story.

Ellinghuysen admits Slack’s requests about Feingold’s involvement were making some people nervous.

“I was getting calls from AFGE national,” she said. “A lot of people were hearing there was going to be some kind of negative article on Feingold.” She added that she wrote back to Slack telling the reporter she wanted everything she said “off the record.”

“I knew what this was going to be about and I didn’t want to be part of it,” Ellinghuysen said.

AFGE chipped in $9,000 to Feingold’s campaign in 2010, and the union’s affiliate, the AFL-CIO, has endorsed Feingold.

And while Ellinghuysen insists she is an “independent,” her Facebook page suggests a more partisan point of view.

Beyond her support of various liberal and Democratic groups on her page, you will find Ellinghuysen “liking” a post stating: “The word ‘Republican’ is not a political party but a personality disorder.”

Ellinghuysen asserts she failed to follow up, but insists she is not lying about her accounts regarding the distribution of her memo. She said she has been beaten up in the press.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin said something doesn’t add up.

“Like a typical Washington insider, Senator Feingold is being dishonest and now his political allies are changing their story to protect their candidate’s political career,” Pat Garrett, spokesman for state GOP, said in a statement.

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M.D. Kittle is national First Amendment reporter at Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.