MADISON, Wis. – Last week, Russ Feingold’s high-priced attorneys threatened Wisconsin TV stations, demanding they take down a conservative group’s ad slamming the Middleton liberal for failing to act in the opioid over-prescription scandal at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Now the issue advocacy group is updating the commercial — with multiple examples of Feingold dropping the ball.
Three attorneys for Feingold, who is trying to take back the seat he lost in 2010 to Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, mailed a letter May 4 to Wisconsin TV stations claiming the ad featuring a well-known whistleblower is “false, misleading, and deceptive.”
Feingold’s campaign insists the former senator never received a union memo warning of myriad problems at the medical center.
At least three stations – WMSN-TV in Madison and WLUK-TV and WGBA in Green Bay – caved and consented to pull the TV ad, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story over the weekend .
“For the sake of both FCC licensing requirements and the public interest, your station must immediately cease airing this advertisement,” Feingold’s attorneys wrote, according to the newspaper.
Fine, said the producers of the ad. We’ll update the ad — to show not one but two urgent memos that were marked “delivered” to Feingold and his staff, said officials from the Freedom Partners Action Fund, the free-market Super PAC founded by businessmen Charles and David Koch.
“I found out about multiple memos outlining veteran harm marked ‘delivered’ to Sen. Feingold. And nothing was done,” Ryan Honl, one of the whistleblowers who helped expose the deadly over-prescription scandal, says in the updated ad.
The new version clearly shows the memos.
“Russ Feingold could have started an investigation while veterans were dying at the facility,” Honl says in the spot.
“All those veterans who have come back wounded, and they died at the hands of politicians who looked the other way,” Honl, a war veteran himself adds, choking back tears. “I just want voters to know the real story.”
Bill Riggs, spokesman for the Freedom Partners Action Fund, said the substance of the ad is the same: “Multiple memos showing veteran harm at Tomah were marked delivered to Sen. Feingold, and he did nothing.”
“The idea he had no knowledge of a major scandal unfolding in his state over the course of two years should be alarming to most voters in Wisconsin,” Riggs said in a statement to Wisconsin Watchdog.
A sales official for WMTV said she had not seen the ad as of Monday afternoon, but when it comes in she will review it and determine whether it will air.
Freedom Partners said the ad was sent out Monday and should be in the rotation of its $2 million campaign attacking Feingold this week.
Feingold’s campaign did not return a request for comment.
“I stand by everything I said in the ad, and I won’t be intimidated by Russ Feingold or his lawyers’ attempts to silence me,” Honl told Watchdog Monday evening. “Unfortunately, this is what happens to whistleblowers and this is why so many are afraid to speak up.”
Honl, a Johnson supporter, has been very critical of Feingold’s handling of a letter a union official provided to the senator’s office in 2009, a couple of years before a Marine Corps veteran died of an overdose of painkillers at the Tomah facility. The letter warned of an array of problems, including over-prescription at a VA center that has been described as “Candy Land.”
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.
In an interview earlier this year 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.
Honl said he has since been attacked by Feingold’s supporters, particularly the union that begged congressional Democrats to do something about the problems in Tomah.
“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 said earlier this year. “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’s 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.”
Ellinghuysen told Wisconsin Watchdog that the union did not forward the letter to Wisconsin’s congressional Republicans.
“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.
Beyond threatening TV stations to stop running political ads, Feingold’s camp fired off its own ad last week dogging Johnson’s office for not acting on Honl’s 2014 complaint.
Honl has since told Wisconsin Watchdog that Johnson has done more to get to the bottom of the VA scandal than Baldwin, Feingold and Kind combined.
Wisconsin junior Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, took the brunt of the criticism on the medical center. It was her office that failed to follow-up after whistleblowers begged the senator to look into the matter.
In the wake of the scandal, Baldwin fired a staff member, who then filed an ethics complaint alleging that Baldwin attempted to cover up her own failure. The Senate Ethics Committee dismissed the complaint.
The updated issue ad points to Ellinghuysen’s 2008 memo about the chief medical officer at the Tomah medical center writing prescriptions without seeing patients. Gannett reported that was “one of several handouts given to representatives for Feingold and former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Milwaukee.”
A 2009 memo written by the union details the problems at the facility.
“(Ellinghuysen) outlined the issues in an April 2009 memo that is marked as having been ‘hand-delivered’ to Rep. Ron Kind, then-congressman Dave Obey and then-Sen. Russ Feingold,” Gannett reported in October 2015.
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