Tammy Baldwin quietly leaves VA investigative oversight committee
February 22, 2017
Read the story below or online here.
MADISON, Wis. – After all the photo-ops and press releases during her very public tenure on the committee charged with investigating alleged abuses at the Department of Veterans Affairs, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin has quietly stepped aside.
The Madison Democrat who made every effort to appear out front of an opioid prescription scandal at the Tomah VA Medical Center – after she was accused of sitting on whistleblower information – has, without comment, left the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
In December, Baldwin’s office sent out a press release announcing that she would continue to serve on the Appropriations and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees. Baldwin also noted that she would join the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, considered a plum assignment.
“I am proud to continue serving on Senate Appropriations and HELP Committees and I look forward to joining the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee,” the senator said. “Working on behalf of the people of Wisconsin on these committees will provide me with a great opportunity to continue focusing on issues important to our state.”
Nowhere in the statement does Baldwin mention her departure from Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, nor does she note her work on behalf of veterans’ issues.
She has been silent about the matter since.
Republicans have taken notice of Baldwin’s quiet departure.
“Senator Baldwin’s decision to run from her failures rather than stand up for Wisconsin’s veterans is shameful,” Alec Zimmerman, spokesman for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said in an email. “Instead of fighting for reforms to the system by participating in the ongoing oversight of the Tomah VA by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, she has embraced the Washington status quo and fled her responsibilities to solve the problem.”
Republicans see Baldwin, a first-term senator viewed as one of the more liberal lawmakers in Washington, as vulnerable in her 2018 re-election bid.
Baldwin’s office did not return Wisconsin Watchdog’s request for comment Tuesday or Wednesday.
Sources say Baldwin could have continued to serve on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, chaired by Wisconsin senior Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh. Instead, she chose to move to the more prestigious — and powerful — Commerce panel.
Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs was extremely active in the last session. In May, it published a comprehensive report on the “Systemic Failures and Preventable Tragedies of the Tomah VA Medical Center” that described a “culture of fear” at the government-run veterans’ health care complex. Tomah was referred to as “Candyland” by whistleblowers and veterans for its opioid prescription practices. Alleged painkiller prescription abuses occurred under the direction of Dr. David Houlihan, the medical center’s director, who became known pejoratively as the “candy man.”
Multiple federal investigations raised myriad concerns about the medical center’s health care delivery and its climate of retaliation and intimidation alleged by whistleblowers.
Marine veteran Jason Simcakoski, 35, died from a toxic mix of more than a dozen drugs at the VA facility in August 2014. Two years later, his family filed a wrongful death and medical malpractice lawsuit against the U.S. government.
Baldwin would go on to author the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act , which was enacted as part of a broader measure in July 2016.
The Simcakoski family praised the senator for her work on the bill, and Baldwin widely promoted her efforts.
“I’m proud to have worked with the Simcakoski family to introduce these bipartisan VA reforms,” Baldwin said in a statement last year after House passage. “My goal is to enact these meaningful reforms to prevent Jason’s tragedy from happening to other veterans and their families.”
But the legislation arrived after Baldwin was accused of sitting on reports that showed dangerous problems inside the Tomah medical center.
She was the only member of Congress from Wisconsin to have received an inspector general’s report detailing the abuses at Tomah. She took no action until the scandal became public four months later.
Other lawmakers and staff, including aides to Johnson, were alerted to some of the abuses long before the IG report but failed to take direct action, according to investigative reports. Baldwin, however, had access to the report and multiple whistleblowers had reached out to the senator’s office for help.
When the story heated up in early 2015, Baldwin blamed a staffer and then fired her. The senator was accused of a cover-up. The staffer, Marquette Baylor, was offered a severance package – with a gag order. The report raised questions about the possible misuse of taxpayer funds.
Baldwin survived a Senate ethics investigation when the Select Committee on Ethics in October 2015 dismissed multiple complaints, ruling that they lacked merit.
“Nothing can change the fact that Senator Baldwin failed to act when she had reason to believe Wisconsin’s veterans were in danger,” the GOP’s Zimmerman said.