Members of Congress have called for an investigation into allegations of rampant overmedication, retaliatory management practices and preventable overdose deaths at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tomah.
|Sen. Tammy Baldwin|
Under fire for her office's inaction over alleged overmedication at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tomah, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin abruptly ousted one of her top state staffers late last week.
Marquette Baylor — deputy state director for Baldwin and chief of her Milwaukee office — was let go on Thursday without explanation. Baylor has been offered a cash payout as part of a severance package if the former aide agrees to keep her lips zipped.
"It looks like they're trying to pin the blame on her," a source said of Baylor's dismissal by Baldwin.
But Ryan Honl — a former Tomah VA employee who has acted as a whistle-blower — said Sunday that Baylor is just one of several Baldwin staffers who mishandled the matter and should be let go.
He said he talked with Baylor for two hours in late November about the problems at the Tomah medical center and that the Baldwin aide discouraged him from going public with his concerns, saying that doing so might get her and others fired.
Honl said he was not happy that Baldwin was offering Baylor a severance deal.
"I get run out of my job and she gets a golden parachute for (expletive) veterans?" Honl asked incredulously.
Baylor's dismissal came as Baldwin tries to respond to the biggest controversy to hit her office since she was elected in 2012.
Bill Murat, chief of staff to Baldwin, traveled to Wisconsin late last week to try to deal with the burgeoning Tomah controversy.
Murat met with Honl for three hours on Friday, apologizing for how his office had handled the matter. Honl said it was clear, based on Murat's remarks, that Baylor was canned as a result. Murat was joined by Baldwin over the weekend in meeting with other whistle-blowers in the Tomah area, according to Honl.
"What choice do they have?" Honl asked. "Her staff was completely and totally incompetent. But they understand the gravity now."
An inspection report from the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General found last year that officials at the Tomah VA Medical Center were prescribing high amounts of opiate pain pills to patients. Baldwin's office received a copy of the report in August.
But Baldwin did not call for an investigation into the Tomah facility until media reports disclosed just this month that a vet died at the Tomah facility from "mixed drug toxicity."
On Friday, Murat declined to discuss Baylor's dismissal or the proposed severance deal.
"We do not comment on personnel matters," Murat said.
Even, apparently, when it involved a Wisconsin staffer on the federal payroll.
Baylor could not be reached for comment. A receptionist at Baldwin's Milwaukee office said Friday of Baylor, "She is no longer with the staff." She declined to provide a number for Baylor because she is now a "private citizen."
Baylor has worked for Baldwin for a little more than a year, earning a little more than $66,000 a year. She previously spent more than 10 years as a Wisconsin staffer for then-U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, a Milwaukee Democrat, and also was once a community relations coordinator for the Milwaukee Brewers.
She is a member of the city Equal Rights Commission, the head of the Milwaukee chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and a board member for Jewish Family Services.
Sources said Baldwin's office has offered a severance package to Baylor that includes a confidentiality agreement and a payment. It is not known how much money she would receive, but insiders said it would be less than six figures.
Baylor has several weeks to decide if she will accept the deal.
It is not known if the payout would involve the use of tax dollars.
Honl, a Gulf War vet and U.S. Military Academy graduate, began contacting Baldwin's staff in November after learning her office had received a copy of the inspection report months earlier.
In an email provided to Gannett Wisconsin Media, Honl contacted Baldwin aide Mike Helbick on Dec. 2 to complain about the matter. He said in the email that he had already talked to Baylor about the inspection report.
"When will Senator Baldwin say 'enough is enough' and push for better treatment of our veterans and a better culture free of intimidation and retaliation in Tomah and VA wide for those who whistleblow?" Honl asked Helbick in the email.
A source said Helbick, a constituent services rep for Baldwin, is expected to keep his job.
Honl said he couldn't understand why Helbick wasn't being ousted along with Baylor. Both seemed primarily interested in avoiding trouble, he said.
What's not clear, Honl said, is whether the pair raised the issue with Murat or even Baldwin.
Baylor allies maintain that she did bring the controversy to the attention of her supervisors, who then did nothing. But Murat gave the impression that he was unaware of the problems at the Tomah medical center, Honl said.
Last week, Republican state lawmakers chided Baldwin, a Madison Democrat, for failing to call for changes sooner based on the report. A Baldwin spokesman has defended her actions.
Honl noted that he also reached out to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, and U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, a Democrat, but got little response until the media picked up on the issue in early January.
Since then, he said, federal lawmakers have been very responsive to his concerns.
"They were caught with their pants down," Honl said.