GOP Candidate Criticizes Baldwin's Handling of VA Controversy

Baldwin's office tried to silence staffer fired with severance package that required confidentiality

Sen. Tammy Baldwin / Getty Images
September 13, 2018

Sen. Tammy Baldwin's (D., Wis.) Republican challenger criticized the incumbent for ignoring abuses at a VA facility and for offering a severance package to a staffer fired over the incident that would have required her to remain quiet if she accepted.

"Senator Baldwin let our veterans down and fired a high-ranking staffer in her office in an attempt to shift the blame onto someone else," said Jess Ward, Leah Vukmir's campaign manager. "Then after the fact, she attempted to bribe her staffer to keep her quiet. Senator Baldwin should be ashamed of her unwillingness to take responsibility for her own failures—all to protect her political career."

A memo first began circulating in 2009 warning of the dangerous amounts of narcotics being handed out to veterans at the Tomah VA facility by its chief of staff, Dr. David Houlihan, who was known as the "Candy Man." Workers at the facility were fearful of speaking out over fear of losing their jobs.

"It is a known fact that if providers or pharmacists refuse to follow Dr. Houlihan's orders, they will be yelled at and perhaps fired," the 2009 memo stated.

Baldwin, who was elected in 2012, was the only member of Congress from Wisconsin to receive an inspector general report in 2014 detailing the abuses at the Tomah VA facility. Baldwin did not act on the report until months later after a Marine had died from an overdose.

Marquette Baylor, a former deputy state director for Baldwin, was then fired after fallout over the controversy. Baylor was offered a severance package if she were to sign a confidentiality agreement on the matter, which she refused.

Marc Elias, a partner at the D.C. office of the Perkins Coie law firm known as the "go-to fixer" for Democrats in trouble, was brought in to help Baldwin weather the storm.

"Marquette Baylor was terminated because her long-term performance on a range of issues did not meet with the senator's expectations for effective constituent service," Elias said in 2015. "As deputy state director for constituent services, her handling of the problems at the Tomah VA was only one of those issues."

Perkins Coie, Elias's firm, was paid $90,000 from Baldwin's campaign throughout 2015. The firm had been on Baldwin's payroll since 2011 but was given a combined $50,994 in the other years.

Baldwin's campaign did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Ryan Hoyl, the man who blew the whistle on the practices at the Tomah VA and was punished for doing so, contacted the Washington Free Beacon last August saying that Baldwin's office would not sit down and speak with him. Hoyl also visited to the offices of Sen. Ron Johnson (R.), Rep. Ron Kind (D.), and Rep. Sean Duffy (R.), all of whom spoke to him.

Republicans began making Baldwin's inaction over the Tomah VA an issue in the state last year. Liberal groups responded by running ads defending the first-term Democratic senator.

One such group to run ads in defense of Baldwin was the Washington, D.C.-based Majority Forward. The group made the ads in conjunction with VoteVets, a progressive veterans group.

Majority Forward was incorporated in 2015 by Elias, the lawyer brought in to help Baldwin with crisis control, the Free Beacon previously reported.

Majority Forward additionally shared staff and office space with the Senate Majority PAC, the largest PAC dedicated to electing and keeping Democrats in the Senate. The Senate Majority PAC has given millions to VoteVets, the second group that defended Baldwin over her record.