MADISON, Wis. — The accounts of retaliation against whistleblowers at Wisconsin’s Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center are stunning, but they are far from isolated in a government-run veterans services system under fire for an array of abuses.
The Democrat, who is challenging first-term Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican, is accused of silencing a whistleblower, and approving inaccurate and punitive performance reviews that cost two employees at a southern Illinois veterans home bonuses and raises.
Duckworth and her campaign claim the seven-year-old lawsuit, dismissed twice, is politically driven. Her taxpayer-funded legal counsel from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office have argued the employees were guilty of “insubordination.”
Her accusers assert their claims of ethics violation are very real, and that Duckworth and her surrogates have dragged their names through the mud to protect her political aspirations.
A federal court in 2008 tossed out a similar lawsuit, declaring it a “garden variety workplace case.”
But an Illinois circuit court judge last month ordered the case to go to trial, scheduling arguments for Aug. 15.
At the time, Duckworth said she was more than ready for the truth to come out at trial. Her campaign spokesman said Duckworth was “looking forward to this politically-motivated case reaching its conclusion after seven years and multiple delays.”
Now, her campaign is fending off charges the former state VA director is welcoming a settlement before the civil case goes to trial.
“What is crystal clear is that Duckworth does not want the truth to come out,” Kevin Artl, Kirk For Senate campaign manager, said in a statement. “After weeks of dodging questions about whether or not she will testify at her own trial, Duckworth is now answering that question by engaging in behind the scenes settlement talks in order to avoid a trial and having to take the stand. What makes this situation even more egregious is that Illinois taxpayers will ultimately have to pay the bill for Duckworth’s improper actions.”
As the Chicago Tribune reported, the settlement conference was initiated by the judge, as such pre-trial negotiations often are.
Duckworth’s powerful Democratic friends in Illinois politics were quick to pounce on that point. And the disabled Iraq War veteran’s campaign spokesman, Matt McGrath, told the Tribune that Kirk should have “more knowledge of, and respect for civil procedure.”
Whistleblower advocates charge that Duckworth should have had more respect for employees who were attempting to point out misconduct within the agency. The former state VA director had to reverse a decision firing one of the plaintiffs after Duckworth was told she had not followed her agency’s written procedures.
Kirk’s campaign has made the lawsuit a focal point of the campaign, underscoring the taxpayer costs involved.
An open records request shows four assistant state attorneys general have worked on the lawsuit since it was filed in 2009. The average salary of the attorneys was $69,156. The Attorney General’s office would neither disclose how many hours the attorneys have spent on the lawsuit, nor would they say how many hours were spent on outside counsel.
Duckworth, a former Blackhawk pilot who lost both of her legs during the war, has campaigned on better care and greater access for veterans. She also has insisted on greater transparency and accountability from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Meanwhile, she has been silent about a buried Office of Inspector General report that found the federal VA agency she ran between 2009 and 2011 wasted $5.2 million on an outreach initiative that failed to show any appreciable results.
Her office did not return a request for comment.
Charges of political failures surrounding the troubled VA system have become all-too-familiar in recent years.
In Wisconsin, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Madison Democrat, was at the center of an investigative report that found her office failed to respond to whistleblowers’ concerns of painkiller overpriscription and accompanying retaliation at the Tomah VA hospital.
Other Wisconsin lawmakers, too, have been accused of failing to act.
A recently released report by the majority on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee found “system failures” and a “culture of fear” that led to a long list of misconduct, abuse and retaliation. Ultimately, the failure to act, according to the report, cost veterans lives.
Similar allegations of intimidation can be found in the lawsuit against Duckworth, who is seen as a Democratic Party hope to pick off a vulnerable Senate seat.
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