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Bernie Sanders failed to act in deadly VA scandal, whistleblower says

By   /   February 1, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

MADISON, Wis. – Uber-liberal presidential candidate Bernie Sanders aims to take Iowa on Monday night in the nation’s kick-off caucuses, in part with a pledge to take care of America’s veterans.

“As a nation, we have a moral obligation to provide the best quality care to those who have put their lives on the line to defend us,” states the Vermont senator’s campaign website on an issues page titled, “Caring for our Veterans.”

“As the former Chairman and current member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, one of Sen. Sanders’ highest priorities in Congress has been ensuring that our veterans receive the care and benefits they earned.”

But the senator’s staff did nothing with detailed reports of myriad abuses going on for years at the Tomah Veteran Affairs Medical Center, according to whistleblower Ryan Honl.

AP file photo

BERNIE AND TAMMY: U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., each failed to do anything with reports of abuse at the Tomah VA Medical Center, according to whistleblower Ryan Honl.

Honl, a Gulf War veteran and secretary at the western Wisconsin facility, helped bring to light overprescription of opioids and retaliatory practices at the medical center.

He said he took his concerns to Tucker Zrebiec, a senior staff assistant on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

“I haven’t shared this with anyone, but when Bernie Sanders was the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, his staff didn’t do anything either after I talked to one of his Democratic staffers,” he told Wisconsin Watchdog in an email late last week.  “Bernie has some explaining to do as well about why his committee didn’t take me seriously.”

Sanders’ committee “knew what was happening at Tomah,” the Army veteran told Wisconsin Watchdog during an interview Friday on the Jay Weber Show, on NewsTalk 1130 WISN.

“I talked to Tucker long before the story broke. That was another reason I got cynical, because you have this Senate VA Committee not giving a crap about what happened in Tomah,” Honl added.

He sent Wisconsin Watchdog notes he said he wrote in October 2014 referencing his conversation with the committee staffer.

Zrebiec could not be reached for comment over the weekend or on Monday morning. A phone line at the Senate Committee’s ranking minority member office does not offer voicemail, and a representative reached Monday morning said he was not sure where Zrebiec presently works.

The alleged failure of the Sanders-led VA Committee to follow up was part of a chain of similar congressional and bureaucratic lapses surrounding the Tomah VA center that Honl and many others say cost lives.

In the wake of January 2015’s bombshell investigative report that exposed the abuses, reports surfaced that U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, did nothing with a 2014 inspector’s general report that preceded the death of a 35-year-old Marine who died after receiving a “lethal cocktail” of medications. Honl also said he had taken his information to Baldwin’s office months before the story broke. Baldwin subsequently blamed her staff for dropping the ball, and fired an aide. The employee filed an ethics complaint against Baldwin, accusing the senator of a cover-up. The Senate Ethics Committee dismissed the complaint.


WHISTLEBLOWER’S NOTES: This is the page of hand-written notes that whistleblower Ryan Honl said he took the day he talked to a staffer on the Bernie Sanders-chaired Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee about the abuses at the Tomah VA Medical Center.

Honl asserts former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold and U.S. Rep. Ron Kind also failed to follow up on whistleblower complaints.

In the radio interview, Honl also disputed the differing accounts of Lin Ellinghuysen, president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees that represents employees at the embattled Tomah VA facility.

In an April 2009 memo, Ellinghuysen outlined “significant” and “serious” concerns of excessive opioid prescriptions and abusive practices by top management, according to a story in October by USA Today.

The memo was marked as having been “hand-delivered” to Democrats Kind, then-Rep. Dave Obey and Feingold, who is hoping to take back the Senate seat he lost to Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson in 2010.

Ellinghuysen told USA Today she has no proof the memo was delivered.

Last week, the union chief told Wisconsin Watchdog that at the time 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.

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

Balkum, according to Ellinghuysen, placed the memo down on a table at a House 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.

She did admit that the USA Today story, before it was published, was 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.”

“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.

Honl said Ellinghuysen is a victim of political pressure.

“When Lin started feeling political pressure, I tried to get her to not deny [the memo was hand-delivered to the lawmakers’ offices], and she refused,” the whistleblower said, adding that he does not talk to the union president anymore after the two had a falling out over the matter.

Photograph courtesy of Ryan Honl

TAKING ON POLITICS: Ryan Honl briefly speaks with President Barack Obama in La Crosse last year. Honl asked Obama to help veterans work with a troubled VA system.

Honl said he believes Ellinghuysen is a “good person in a no-win situation.”

“She’d be a pariah in the union if she revealed the conversations I’m sure she’s had behind the scenes,” he said. “The real tragedy about it is she’s done more for vets and whistleblowers within the VA than anyone I know and yet, because of the politics, they want to silence her.”

Honl, who has in the past criticized Johnson’s office — as he did Baldwin’s — for not putting the “full pressure” of his office on the Tomah medical center, told Wisconsin Watchdog that Johnson has done more to stop the abusive conduct than any of his congressional colleagues and is “the least culpable out of any of them.”

“His committee was the only one to investigate Tomah and to continue to investigate Tomah,” he said, referring to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which Johnson chairs. Honl also noted the whistleblower protection legislation Johnson co-authored in the wake of the Tomah scandal.

The former VA employee said he gave up trying to talk to politicians after he found out Baldwin’s office sat on the inspector general’s report. To Johnson’s credit, Honl said, a Johnson staffer continued to try to reach out to him.

Honl said he was furious when Feingold’s campaign tried to make political hay out of the story about Johnson’s staff originally not following up. He said he now endorses Johnson in the Senate election.

“I was a lifelong Democrat,” Honl said. “I voted straight-party ticket. I would have voted for Feingold without even thinking twice. During this experience in dealing with the government, I am anything but a Democrat any more.”


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