TOMAH, Wis. – Rep. Ron Kind urged lawmakers and bureaucrats Tuesday to “keep the focus on the veterans” in the troubled Veterans Affairs health care system.
The La Crosse Democrat didn’t want any focus on him as he fled from Wisconsin Watchdog’s questions about his reported political failures in the Tomah VA Medical Center scandal.
“Contact my office,” Kind curtly said as he hastily left the conference room of the Cranberry Country Lodge in Tomah following Tuesday morning’s Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing.
The hearing, led by committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, provided a detailed picture of the manifold misconduct and retaliation alleged to have taken place for years at the hospital and pointed the blame squarely at a VA Office of Inspector General for failing to take seriously dozens of insider complaints.
The committee also released a 359-page report, “The Systematic Failures and Preventable Tragedies at the Tomah VA Medical Center,” that underscored the myriad failings of VA management and the agency’s independent watchdog.
Kind also has some explaining to do.
The congressman, who represents Tomah as part of the Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District, talked a lot about the failures of VA leadership to hold administrators and supervisors in Tomah accountable.
But Kind has not answered repeated questions about the phone call – or calls –that multiple sources say his office received from Jason Simcakoski before the 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran died from a “toxic cocktail” of prescription medication in August 2014.
Wisconsin Watchdog has obtained several emails from sources close to the situation showing that phone records show Kind’s office received at least one call from Simcakoski’s phone.
As Tomah VA whistleblower Ryan Honl put it, the veteran presumably was not calling Kind to “talk about the weather.”
Kind’s office has not returned multiple requests for comment. On Tuesday, the congressman repeatedly refused to answer Wisconsin Watchdog’s questions. He walked away from a direct question on six different occasions. At one point, his handler claimed that the congressman was having a “private conversation” in the crowded conference room at a public hearing.
“He’s in a meeting right now,” the congressman’s flack said.
“Excuse me, sir. We are having a private conversation,” Kind repeated to Wisconsin Watchdog, as he conversed with a VA official.
Honl said Kind’s refusal to answer the question is very telling. He said Kind took the word of Tomah hospital administrators over whistleblowers and now he is trying to point fingers elsewhere.
“He’s responsible for veterans’ deaths. … He could have done something. … like (former Sen.) Russ Feingold, who is trying to run for Ron Johnson’s seat,” Honl told reporters following the hearing.
Honl, who has endorsed Johnson and flirted with the idea of running against Kind, has been the face of some controversial campaign ads attacking Feingold for doing nothing with “hand-delivered” memos warning him of problems at Tomah. Feingold has denied that his office ever received the 2008 and 2009 memos.
The phone records indicating Kind’s office received a call from Simcakoski were not included in the official report. But source notes for the report confirm that Kind’s office did receive a call from Simcakoski’s phone, a call that lasted 7 minutes and 39 seconds.
But the report does include phone records that show Simcakoski attempted on several occasions in 2013, less than a year before he died at the hospital, to contact multiple law enforcement agencies – including the Tomah Police Department, the Portage Sheriff’s Department, and the FBI.
In November 2013, Simcakoski contacted then-Tomah VA Medical Center Police Chief Perry Huffman four times, ad his underlings many more times, according to the report.
The veteran’s cell phones contained a voicemail from someone claiming to be an FBI agent, on Nov. 4, 2013.
Johnson played the voicemail recording at Tuesday’s hearing.
“Jason, this is Andy Chapman from the FBI returning your call. My phone number is 608-782-6030,” the person on the voicemail says.
An official from the FBI satellite office in La Crosse answered at that number Tuesday, but would not state his name and when asked whether an Andy Chapman works there said Wisconsin Watchdog would need to contact the FBI office in Milwaukee.
Phone records show Simcakoski was in contact with the FBI on at least five separate occasions that November, including a call that lasted 12 minutes and 25 seconds, according to the report.
Just a half hour after a call to the FBI on Nov. 4, 2013, Simcakoski sent a text to his wife: “I talked to the FBI today.” In Facebook posts he wrote, “ I’m not working with Tomah PD or va pd I’m a lot higher than them … FBI … “
Johnson said officials from the FBI declined to appear at Tuesday’s hearing, but stated in a letter to the committee that “Our records have not shown that Mr. Simcakoski was in contact with any FBI field office.”
The report notes scores of Inspector General office reports that “got buried.”
VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson acknowledged that, “This is a leadership failure. At the end of the day we own this. We failed to get this done.”
But VA officials testifying said they could not substantiate the many allegations of overprescriptions and incidents of retaliation at the medical center, despite the many accounts and documentation provided by whistleblowers.
As noted in the report, the former Tomah VAMC police chief knew the facility was a “big pill box” when he took the job in 2009, but never investigated the allegations.
The Senate committee report revealed there were allegations that Dr. David Houlihan, former chief of staff of the medical center, and another staff member were “impaired” by drug usage. Those allegations were not investigated.
Houlihan, referred to as the “Candy Man” for his opioid prescription polices, had his VA clinical privileges revoked in November after being accused of leading a “culture of fear” and retaliation at the hospital. He is now operating a private psychiatry practice in Wisconsin.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, questioned VA officials about their assessment Houlihan provided care at the “outer boundary of acceptable practices.” She said it’s easy to see he exceeded that boundary.
“With the advantage of hindsight this doesn’t look all that complicated to me,” Baldwin, a member of the committee, said to newly installed VA Inspector General Michael Missal. The IG said the assessment process was “complicated.”
Given the advantage of hindsight, Baldwin and her office would have acted more swiftly and decisively to allegations of misconduct and retaliation brought by whistleblowers like Honl.
But like Kind, Baldwin spent plenty of time at Tuesday’s hearing highlighting the reforms she has pushed, while blaming others for a failure to act.
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