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Feingold’s campaign caught up in VA scandal memo war

By   /   May 9, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 14 of 47 in the series Tomah VA Scandal

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.

Photo by VeteransToday.com

TO TELL THE TRUTH: A conservative issue advocacy group has rolled out a new version of a campaign ad attacking Russ Feingold. The ad accuses the Middleton liberal of failing to act on multiple memos warning of health concerns at the Tomah VA Medical Center.

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.

RELATED: Ad attacking Feingold asserts veterans died because of ‘politicians who looked the other way’

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.

Part of 47 in the series Tomah VA Scandal
  1. After damaging silence, Baldwin now calls for probe of troubled VA center
  2. Legal expert says U.S. Sen Tammy Baldwin is in full ‘damage control’
  3. Baldwin aide breaks silence, alleges senator engaged in ‘coverup’
  4. Baldwin’s public relations team kicks into high gear following ethics complaint
  5. Ethics watchdog urges Senate committee to investigate Baldwin
  6. Tammy Baldwin’s political fixer is helping Hillary attack voter ID
  7. Senate committee asking if FBI missed the call in veteran’s death at VA
  8. When lawmakers failed Wisconsin’s veterans
  9. Is political pressure behind Lin Ellinghuysen’s differing accounts on VA memo?
  10. Bernie Sanders failed to act in deadly VA scandal, whistleblower says
  11. Does government union chief’s threat show AFGE’s hand on veterans care?
  12. What would Russ Feingold’s 1992 self say to the 2015 version?
  13. Ad attacking Feingold asserts veterans died because of ‘politicians who looked the other way’
  14. Feingold’s campaign caught up in VA scandal memo war
  15. PolitiFact Wisconsin trusts Russ Feingold to deliver its facts
  16. Sources: Ron Kind received call from Jason Simcakoski not long before Marine’s tragic death
  17. Captain Campaign Finance Reform, Russ Feingold, changes ‘dark money’ tune
  18. Baldwin talks transparency while keeping her secrets in Tomah VA scandal
  19. Ron Kind knew about Tomah VA abuse years before the story broke
  20. Ron Kind now solving Tomah VA scandal one press release at a time
  21. Tammy Baldwin silent on her failures as she blasts Tomah VA medical center
  22. Tomah VA whistleblower says he’s getting pressure from unhappy Dems
  23. Feingold’s facts fail again in face of Tomah scandal
  24. Senate field hearing to shine more light on Tomah VA scandal
  25. Tomah VA supervisor accused of misconduct gets promoted
  26. Senate hearing to look deeper into scandal-plagued Tomah VA hospital
  27. Kind flees questions, Senate committee turns up heat on Tomah VA hospital scandal
  28. Report: Tomah VA hospital story is one of ‘systemic failures’
  29. Tomah VA hospital whistleblower: ‘It will not change’
  30. Ron Kind breaks silence on call from veteran victim at Tomah VA hospital
  31. VA union holds rally to save itself, Tomah whistleblower says
  32. Sound familiar? Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth accused of retaliation at VA
  33. Emails say Tomah VA patient reached out to Feingold, Kind, in 2008 about abuse
  34. Johnson: Hold accountable those who put Tomah veterans at risk of HIV, hepatitis
  35. Veteran jumps out of third-floor window at Tomah VA hospital
  36. Tomah VA employee: ‘We have forgotten who we work for’
  37. Congressional committees want answers on Tomah VA hospital
  38. Senators ask Pence, Trump transition team, to hold troubled VA accountable
  39. Veterans advocate: VA hospitals’ ‘improvement’ doesn’t tell whole story
  40. Tomah VA Medical Center’s ‘Candy Man’ stripped of license
  41. Opinions differ on whether it’s ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ at Tomah VA
  42. Latest data show Tomah VA hospital improving in opioid prescriptions, veteran satisfaction
  43. VA secretary nominee faces little resistance, lots of challenges
  44. Insiders: Tomah VA troubles continue with nurse shortage, neglectful care
  45. VA whistleblower has questions for Congressman Ron Kind
  46. Johnson brings back whistleblower protection bill as Sunshine Week opens
  47. Iraq war veteran burned by ‘very frustrating process’ at VA

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M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.