MADISON, Wis. – Now Rep. Ron Kind is talking.
After running away from Wisconsin Watchdog’s questions Tuesday in Tomah, the La Crosse Democrat now tells his hometown newspaper that he had no knowledge of a call his Washington, D.C., office received from Jason Simcakoski months before the Marine Corps veteran died of a prescription drug overdose at the scandal-plagued Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Kind says his office will “conduct a thorough review” of its files.
“I can’t imagine that if someone, anyone called my office, gave their name and asked for help, then a case file would have been started immediately,” the congressman told the La Crosse Tribune on Wednesday.
Kind commented only after the release of source notes from a 359-page Senate committee report showed a seven-minute, 39-second call from Simcakoski’s phone to Kind’s office on the evening of Nov. 8, 2013. The call was placed some nine months before the 35-year-old veteran died of what has been described as a “toxic cocktail” of prescription drugs while he was an inpatient at the Tomah VA medical center – a hospital known as “Candyland” because of staff practices of overprescribing opioids and other painkillers.
Simcakoski was a long-time patient who had struggled with mental health and addiction problems.
On Tuesday, immediately following the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ field hearing into manifold allegations of misconduct and abuse at Tomah, Kind repeatedly refused to answer Wisconsin Watchdog’s questions about the call.
“Contact my office,” Kind curtly said as he hastily left the conference room of the Cranberry Country Lodge in Tomah. He was visibly agitated by the question, at one point declaring that he was having a private conversation with a VA official in the public meeting space.
Wisconsin Watchdog first broke the story on May 22, after learning from multiple sources of the existence of the phone record. Kind’s office did not return several calls seeking comment.
He has since released a statement asserting that his office doesn’t have a record of Simcakoski’s call. The congressman’s statement said the office has “strict protocol to handle every call in an appropriate way” and that its process “ensures that when constituents provide their name and contact information, and have concerns, those concerns are addressed.”
“If Jason had called our office to ask for help, we would have immediately opened a casework file and asked him to sign a Privacy Release Form in order to work on his case, as we have with almost 2,000 veterans’ cases since 2011,” the statement said. “If he had provided information, we would have flagged it and sent to the authorities, like we did when we sent the VA Inspector General an anonymous letter we received in 2011. Lastly, if he in any way sounded distressed we would have asked for his contact information and taken immediate action to reach out to the proper authorities.”
Kind’s office did forward an anonymous complaint about the hospital to the VA Inspector General in 2011, but the congressman did not follow up.
Kind and former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold have been accused of not acting on allegations of misconduct. An official for the union that represents many of the employees at Tomah originally said she had sent “hand-delivered” memos to Kind and Feingold in 2009, but later walked back those statements.
Kind and Feingold said their offices had no record of the memo. Sound familiar?
Feingold, a Middleton Democrat who is campaigning to take back the seat he lost to Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, in 2010, has called independent ads attacking him on the issue “shameful.”
Johnson is chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He led Tuesday’s hearing in Tomah, and his staff put together the extensive report on the medical center.
At a campaign stop in Eau Claire on Tuesday, Feingold said his opponent is allowing outside groups to politicize the tragic events.
He then told a reporter from the liberal Wisconsin State Journal Wednesday that his “first impression” of the report is that he is “not mentioned anywhere” in the 359-page report.
“It’s telling that Russ Feingold’s initial reaction to the Tomah VA report focused on himself rather than veterans,” said Bill Riggs, spokesman for Freedom Partners Action Fund in a statement. The conservative Super PAC funded by industrialists Charles and David Koch, produced the attack ads.
Riggs said Feingold’s response was “relief” that his name didn’t show up in the report, and that Feingold remains “more interested in his own political career than fighting for solutions to ensure that veterans received the best care they can get.”
Kind was not named in the report, or source notes, either. His Washington office number was noted in the long list of phone records that included dozens of calls Simcakoski placed to multiple law enforcement agents, including Tomah VAMC police and the FBI.
Ryan Honl, the former Tomah VA hospital secretary turned whistleblower stands by his claims that Kind, Feingold and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, failed to act and are at least in part responsible for the deaths of veterans.
“It is a tragedy. Ron Kind has involvement in turning away and listening to (VA) leadership more than whistleblowers going all the way back to 2008. It’s well documented,” Honl told Wisconsin Watchdog this week on the Vicki McKenna Show, on NewsTalk 1310 WIBA.
Honl doesn’t believe Kind’s response about the phone record. He said the congressman began to act only after news broke in January 2015 about whistleblower allegations of wide-ranging misconduct and retaliation at the medical center. When a USA Today investigative reporter asked Kind what happened to the complaint Honl had forwarded to the congressman’s office in September 2014, Kind’s spokesperson said the complaint wasn’t properly processed by the computer system so it never appeared in anyone’s email inbox.
Johnson’s office, too, received the complaint. Staff members opened a constituent case file and forwarded it to a Senate committee, but that’s where it stalled, according to USA Today.
Honl, who has endorsed Johnson, said the senator has done more to get answers and hold VA officials accountable than any other member of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation.
Kind and Baldwin, like Johnson, have pushed reform legislation over the past 16 months.
Honl said the media at large have done little to hold Kind, Baldwin, and Feingold accountable.
“There’s a lack of accountability. It’s not just at the VA, it’s with politicians, too,” the whistleblower said.
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