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PolitiFact Wisconsin trusts Russ Feingold to deliver its facts

By   /   May 12, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 15 of 47 in the series Tomah VA Scandal

MADISON, Wis. – The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s motto: When in doubt, trust Russ Feingold’s word.

That’s how the newspaper’s PolitiFact Wisconsin rolls.

Not only did the reporter of the political fact-checking feature accept at face value the Feingold campaign’s version of a contentious issue, he apparently refused to get the other side of the story from a Veterans Affairs whistleblower.

“Can I respectfully ask why you didn’t reach out to me before claiming what I have to say is false?” Ryan Honl wrote Tom Kertscher, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/PolitiFact Wisconsin reporter.

Honl tipped off federal lawmakers about charges of health care providers over-prescribing painkillers at the Tomah VA Medical Center. The story broke in January 2015, exposing accounts of  drugged out veterans and patients dying at a medical center derisively referred to as “Candyland.” The scandal eventually led to congressional hearings and investigations.

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POLITIFARCE? The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s PolitiFact Wisconsin didn’t even bother to contact whistleblower Ryan Honl before determining an ad featuring Honl was ‘False.’

Honl has said he begged staff members from the offices of Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, and U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, to do something about the deadly abuses inside the walls of the VA center.

The whistleblower said Johnson is the only one who pressed the matter, after he personally was made aware of the problems.

Honl also has accused Feingold, who is campaigning to take back the Senate seat he lost to Johnson in 2010, of failing to follow-up on a union official’s 2009 memo advising then-Sen. Feingold of the mounting issues.

Honl has endorsed Johnson. He appears in a campaign ad by conservative Super PAC Freedom Partners Action Fund asserting that Feingold “got a memo in 2009 that outlined veteran harm. And nothing was done.”

“Russ Feingold ignored veterans’ concerns while veterans where dying at the facility,”  Honl, a veteran and former employee at the medical facility, said in the 60-second TV ad.

Feingold and his campaign attorneys didn’t like that characterization and, in a thinly veiled threatening letter, demanded TV stations around the state stop running the ad. Three stations complied.

Freedom Partners updated the version, removing the assertion that Feingold personally received the memo but noting that it had been marked “hand-delivered.”

The ad clearly shows Feingold’s name on the documents. As reported, two letters – one in 2008 and 2009 – were marked delivered to Feingold’s office.

Feingold again cried foul and declared his office never received the memo.

While PolitiFact concedes it “may never be known” whether “Feingold ever received the memo,” it rates the ad false.  Kertscher insists Freedom Partners “cites no evidence that it was delivered.”

Instead, he takes the word of Feingold and Lin Ellinghuysen, president of the union that represents staff at the Tomah VA facility. Ellinghuysen in the 2009 memo warned that “(M)any of the veterans served at this facility are prescribed large quantities of narcotics.” She asked a fellow union leader to give the memo to Feingold, Kind, and then-U.S. Rep. Dave Obey, another Democrat.

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

Ellinghuysen told USA Today in October 2015 that “we can’t confirm” the memos were delivered to the lawmakers and that she had “mistakenly operated on that assumption.”

She later told PolitiFact Wisconsin that the memo was not delivered to Feingold.

That’s good enough for PolitiFact.

But perhaps Ellinghuysen was trying to protect a politician her federal employee union has richly supported – a candidate she has contributed to as well.

In an interview earlier this year with Wisconsin Watchdog, Ellinghuysen acknowledged the USA Today reporter’s requests about Feingold’s involvement were making some people nervous.

“I was getting calls from AFGE (American Federation of Government Employees) 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 has 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.”

There’s also the matter of the taped conversation Ellinghuysen had with a sheriff’s department investigator in 2009, after a Tomah staff member committed suicide.

“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 Senator,” the union representative said. “And I talked with them last summer also because some horrendous things were coming down with people who had worked there 30 years, 25 years and I just had to go external because nothing else was working.”

The PolitiFact piece points out that Ellinghuysen doesn’t name the senator, further “proof” apparently of a false attack ad.

At best, it’s he said-she said.

Not to PolitiFact.

“Before declaring somebody as false and throwing their credibility under the bus you could have done a better job reach out to all parties,” Honl wrote in an email to Kertscher.

Kertscher’s explanation as to why he didn’t contact the man who made the statements in the ad?

“We made it clear in the article that she (Ellinghuysen) had said one thing initially, and then another. We didn’t need another person speaking to that,” the reporter told Honl in an email response.

Honl told Kertscher that Ellinghuysen on numerous occasions in his presence clearly said that she had those documents delivered to Feingold, Kind and Obey.

“I think it begs a little bit of a question as to why her story changed once she saw the danger to Feingold/Kind. Now why WOULD it change? Could it be because in my presence she made it very clear she’s a Feingold/Kind supporter? She has stated publicly AFGE doesn’t go to Republicans.”

She stated that to Wisconsin Watchdog, too.

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

PolitiFact Wisconsin did take great pains to point out that Freedom Partners Action Fund is a “Koch-funded Super PAC.” Of course you won’t find too many Milwaukee Journal Sentinel headlines beginning with “George Soros-funded Super PAC.”

Feingold’s campaign launched an ad Thursday declaring Freedom Partners’ spot was “so untrue three stations pulled it off the air.” The liberal’s ad attacks Johnson for failing to respond to warnings about Tomah. It doesn’t mention the union’s aversion to Republicans.

“To go after Ron Johnson for being the one as the cause of this whole thing is contrary to facts. … Ron Johnson has been investigating not only Tomah, but corruption in other agencies and other VAs across the country,” Honl said in a statement.

“Russ Feingold could have started an investigation on what was happening in this state. Now he wants to get a seat back from a man who actually is doing something to clean up the second largest federal bureaucracy? He doesn’t deserve it.”

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.