By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON, Wis. — Despite being dogged by a growing scandal over the firing of a top staffer, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin has in recent weeks aggressively responded to allegations of criminal wrongdoing at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
The Wisconsin Democrat most recently called on the U.S. Department of Justice to launch an immediate investigation into the facility amid reports that staff overprescribed opiate-based medications at deadly levels.
Baldwin is sending out a lot of news releases on Tomah these days.
“What should she have done when she first got that document (inspection report) is exactly what she’s doing now. If she had, maybe people wouldn’t be dead,” said Cheri Cannon, partner at Arlington, Va.-based Tully Rinckey PLLC.
Cannon, who has more than two decades of experience in the federal government, including extensive experience as a senior attorney and member of the Senior Executive Service, joined the law firm’s nationally recognized federal labor and employment practice group a little over a year ago.
She knows her stuff, and she can see that Baldwin is “clearly in damage control.”
On Thursday, the Republican Party of Wisconsin filed an ethics complaintasking the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate Baldwin’s firing last month of Marquette Baylor, who headed up the senator’s Milwaukee office.
Baylor was let go after investigative reports broke in early January about the Tomah VA medical center’s pain-killer prescribing practices, now alleged to have led to the deaths of three veterans.
Baldwin’s office, according to reports, did nothing with an inspector general’s report last year detailing the concerns, and refused to act when a whistleblower reportedly begged Baldwin’s office to do something.
Baldwin has said nothing about Baylor’s termination, nor the hefty severance package — with a confidentiality clause — offered to the aide. As Wisconsin Reporter first reported earlier this week, Baylor refused the payout and has enlisted the help of attorneys.
The senator’s surrogates have blamed Baylor for botched handling of the reports.
“As part of a massive cover-up, Tammy Baldwin wrongly appropriated taxpayer funds to compensate a Senate employee who would not have performed official government duties while also fraudulently offering a contract to silence a former employee in order save Baldwin’s own political career,” alleges the complaint, signed by Republican Party of Wisconsin Executive Director Joe Fadness.
Baldwin has brought in Democrat political fixer Mark Elias to deal with the messy situation for a first-term senator — the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate — who has had relatively easy sledding in the media up until now.
In 2011, Politico named Elias to its list of 50 politicos to watch. The publication described the attorney as “quick-talking, Twitter-savvy.” Elias has represented a “veritable who’s who of Democratic power players, from Sens. Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to a trio of new outside groups with close ties to party leaders that are angling to spend tens of millions of dollars on ads attacking Republicans in the 2012 elections — Majority PAC, House Majority PAC and American Bridge,” Politico wrote.
On Thursday, Elias’ job was to say the Wisconsin GOP is full of it, that its complaint was nothing more than a “political stunt.”
“This is a frivolous allegation wholly without merit,” he said in an email statement to Politico. “It is unfortunate that the Republican Party has made the choice to play partisan politics with the serious and tragic issues facing the VA and our veterans.”
Cannon, who represents federal agency players in troubled legal situations, said the GOP is barking up the wrong tree. If there was no payout, if Baylor didn’t take the severance deal, then there’s no taxpayer money at stake.
The attorney said confidentiality agreements in severance packages are certainly not a rarity between government employees and a government managers trying to protect themselves.
But Baylor didn’t take the deal, and that could spell trouble for Baldwin eventually.
“This woman either didn’t tell Baldwin anything and did a terrible job or (the senator) knows this woman knew Baldwin knew about the problems and did nothing. It’s all going to come out in the wash,” Cannon said.
While Elias earlier this week claimed Baylor had a record of performance problems during her tenure with Baldwin, the veteran political aide’s resume would suggest otherwise.
Before taking the position as Baldwin’s deputy state director, Baylor served on former Wisconsin Democrat U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl’s staff for more than a decade.
“You don’t work for that guy for a decade and have employment performance problems. If you do, you get fired,” Cannon said.
Surrounding the firing scandal are reports that Baylor may have felt discriminated against as one of the few high-ranking heterosexuals on Baldwin’s staff.
Baldwin would definitely want to make that claim go away, Cannon said.
The attorney represents employees seeking whistleblower protection, including those retaliated against in what Cannon describes as the VA “fiefdom.”
She said the Veterans Affairs system is by design too enamored with its doctors, in large part because it is so difficult to recruit physicians to work in the public sector for much less money than they’d make in the private sector. Some are altruistic and good at what they do. Others are not, and have nowhere else to go.
Cannon said the Tomah story is just an example of a national health care system for veterans that is anything but accountable.
“Doctors are like gods. What they say goes,” she said. “Even if someone has concerns about a doctor overprescribing drugs, no one is going to question him.”
Whistleblowers at the Tomah VA facility, described as “Candy Land,” said retaliation was a common practice.
“For the most part, employees who work at VA hospitals don’t have any kind of appeal rights if they get fired. They’re not standard civil servants. If they get fired they don’t have an appeal channel outside the VA,” Cannon said.
“These people are like captives in this system. They don’t complain. They don’t whistleblow. When they do, you see what happens. It creates a culture where whistleblowing is not tolerated and reprisals are part of it because (the administrators) always get away with it.”