MADISON, Wis. - In a very strongly worded ad, Republican state Sen. Leah Vukmir gives her version of how Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin handled the Tomah Veterans Affairs medical center opioid crisis.
"You've got some nerve, Senator Baldwin," Vukmir says in the ad, looking directly at the camera. "Saying a nurse doesn't care about patients? You knew about the opioid crisis at the Tomah VA and you did nothing."
News 3 finds this needs clarification, and a timeline, to understand exactly what happened at the Tomah VA.
The public first learned about problems at the Tomah VA in January 2015 after an investigative report from the Center for Investigative Reporting uncovered doctors overprescribing opioids, vets dubbing the facility "Candy Land." But members of Congress had been getting messages from whistleblowers before then.
According to extensive reporting by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Baldwin's office received a letter from a whistleblower raising concerns in March 2014. The senator then asked the Tomah facility about problems and asked the VA inspector general to investigate. In a May letter, the VA dismissed many of the allegations.
In August 2014, Baldwin's office was sent a report by the VA that dismissed some allegations but did raise "serious concerns" about opioid prescriptions at Tomah. Baldwin's office sent that report to the constituent who raised concerns but did not make it public. The day after that report was sent to Baldwin, veteran Jason Simcakoski died of "mixed use toxicity" from his treatment at Tomah, a fact Baldwin would not learn until later.
"A veteran died," Vukmir says in the ad. "You offered taxpayer dollars in exchange for silence and hired Hillary Clinton's lawyer to cover it up."
News 3 finds this also needs clarification.
In the fall of 2014, a veteran and whistleblower named Ryan Honl tried to get the attention of multiple members of Congress on this issue. Honl ultimately reached Baldwin aides, and tried to get them to make public the report he discovered her office had. One of those aides, Marquette Baylor, said she wrote three reports on the issue that she shared with superiors but Baldwin says she never saw it.
This is where an attorney got involved. Baylor was fired by Baldwin in January 2015, two weeks after the Tomah news reports. Baylor claims she was offered a severance package that included a confidentiality clause and turned it down. Baylor then hired a Republican law firm to file a federal ethics complaint and Baldwin hired Democratic attorney Marc Elias, who has represented Hillary Clinton, to look at what went wrong in her office.
In March 2015, Elias' review found Baldwin staffers didn't properly handle the Tomah concerns and said there was no cover-up by the senator's staff. Baldwin demoted or cut pay of some staffers in response and told the Journal-Sentinel that "mistakes were made."
Baylor's ethics complaint was ultimately dismissed by a Senate committee.
Since the ad aired, Simcakoski's family has appeared in ads for Baldwin, calling it "shameful" that Vukmir would criticize Baldwin, and pointing out that Baldwin helped author legislation to require changes at the VA.
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