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Ron Kind breaks silence on call from veteran victim at Tomah VA hospital

By   /   June 2, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 30 of 47 in the series Tomah VA Scandal

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.

Photo by Wisconsin Watchdog

NO KNOWLEDGE: U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, at a Senate committee field hearing on the scandal-plagued Tomah VA Medical Center. Kind said he has no knowledge of a call his office took from a Marine veteran who died of a prescription drug overdose at the facility in August 2014.

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.

RELATED: Kind flees questions, Senate committee turns up heat on Tomah VA hospital scandal

“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.

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.