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Tomah VA whistleblower says he’s getting pressure from unhappy Dems

By   /   February 9, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

MADISON, Wis. – Ryan Honl says he is “feeling the Bern” from a union and the Democrats it backs for blowing the whistle on congressional inaction in the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center scandal.

Honl, a Gulf War veteran and former secretary at the western Wisconsin facility, told Wisconsin Watchdog earlier this month that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, like fellow Democrat U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, failed to do anything with Honl’s complaints on opioid over-prescribing and other abuses at the medical center.

Now, Honl says the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents staff at the Tomah VA center, is livid about his comments disputing the union’s accounts and his criticism of what he says is a broken single-payer health care system for veterans. Facebook posts by local union leadership support his claims.

“When Bernie Sanders was the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, his staff didn’t do anything either,” Honl said.  “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,” Honl said in an interview with Wisconsin Watchdog late last month on the Jay Weber Show on NewsTalk 1130 WISN.

Photo 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. He said he received a conflicted answer regarding the law.

Honl also was highly critical of Baldwin, Wisconsin’s junior senator, for her failure to pick up on an inspector general’s report detailing the high painkiller prescription rates and Honl’s repeated calls to Baldwin’s office about the abuses occurring at the medical center. One veteran died at the hospital in 2014, the victim of a lethal cocktail of prescription medications.

And the whistleblower, who says he is endorsing U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson in the first-term Republican’s bid for re-election against former Sen. Russ Feingold, is furious that Feingold’s campaign and his union surrogates have gone on the attack. They accuse Johnson of dropping the ball.

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.

Honl, a member of the union before he left the medical center as a targeted whistleblower, said he received an urgent call from a Baldwin staffer last week “reminding him” of all the things the senator has done for veterans, Tomah staff, and for Honl – months after her office was exposed for doing nothing with whistleblower complaints.

“He kept telling me Tammy doesn’t sell out to the special interests, except the union dropped the ball years ago and the Democrats knew what was going on at Tomah long before vets started dying,” Honl said in an interview with Wisconsin Watchdog this week.

The Baldwin staffer, Ken Reidy, referred Wisconsin Watchdog’s questions to the senator’s press office. A spokesperson for the senator did not respond to requests for comment.

“Now the union president here in Tomah is saying I am betraying the union. It’s politics for the Democrats. … They’ve circled the wagons about what’s going on at the VA,” Honl asserted. “Russ Feingold, Tammy Baldwin, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, they all want the VA to be a model of health care and it’s not. The unions, all they care about is their federal jobs. They put those jobs ahead of veterans.

“If they cared about what happening with the veterans, why wouldn’t (the union) go to everybody, including the Republicans” with the complaints of abuse, Honl added. “But the union just goes to the Democrats.”

Gannett Media in October reported Feingold and U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, did not do anything with a 2009 memo from AFGE local president (vice president at the time) Lin Ellinghuysen detailing the abuses at the Tomah VA Medical Center. The memo was marked hand-delivered, but Feingold and Kind deny ever having seen it.

Ellinghuysen has since said she doesn’t believe the document was ever delivered to the lawmakers

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

In an interview last month with Wisconsin Watchdog, Ellinghuysen acknowledged the Gannett reporter’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.”

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

She admitted that she did not 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.

There is a photo from August of Johnson drinking beer with local union members on the AFGE Facebook page.

Honl said the union’s failure to reach out to Republicans at the time “leaves veterans cold.”

“When vets are dying at the VA, maybe there should be a little more bipartisanship,” the whistleblower said. “It’s all politics and I’m just god damn sick of it. The VA needs a house-cleaning and it’s not happening.”


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