A conservative advocacy group is standing by its claim that former Sen. Russ Feingold was warned of problems at the Tomah VA Medical Center and failed to respond, which Feingold — and the author of a memo central to the claim — are disputing.
The group, Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, featured the claim in an ad in the Green Bay Press-Gazette this week and hasn’t ruled out running more such ads.
Feingold responded a day later, flatly saying the attack ad “is not true.”
The Tomah VA center has been in the headlines since an investigation by the VA’s Inspector General found deficiencies in care at the facility contributed to the 2014 death of a U.S. Marine from Stevens Point, Jason Simcakoski. The facility’s director and chief of staff were fired last year after those findings were disclosed.
Other lawmakers such as U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, have faced blowback about their office’s handling of the matter.
Now comes the anti-Feingold ad, based on a memo written in 2009 by a union official at the Tomah VA facility and marked “hand-delivered” to Feingold — then a U.S. senator — and U.S. Reps. Ron Kind and Dave Obey. The memo warned that veterans were being over-prescribed narcotics at Tomah.
But the author of the memo — Lin Ellinghuysen, president of AFGE Local 0007, the local union representing most workers at the Tomah VA — changed course last year, saying the document never was delivered to Feingold or his staff.
Feingold noted that in his rebuttal to the ad, adding that his office searched for the memo and had no record of receiving it.
Ellinghuysen told the Wisconsin State Journal this week that she wrote the 2009 memo to a union official at the VA medical center in Iron Mountain, Mich., after the official told her he would testify to a congressional panel about problems at his facility. Before he testified, Ellinghuysen said she told Balkum about her plans to write the memo and that Feingold and Kind represented the Tomah area in Congress. On that basis, Ellinghuysen said she mistakenly assumed Balkum would deliver the memo to them while in Washington, D.C., and wrote that on the document.
Last year, when a reporter contacted Ellinghuysen to inquire about the memo, she said she contacted Balkum to ask if he hand-delivered it, and he said he did not.
Attempts to reach Balkum on Friday were not successful.
The memo became a public document after Ellinghuysen provided it to police when they were investigating the suicide of a former psychologist at the Tomah VA, Christopher Kirkpatrick.
“I made a bad assumption,” Ellinghuysen said. “Russ Feingold did not receive my memo addressed to Ben Balkum.”
A spokesman for Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, Chris Martin, asked in a statement why Ellinghuysen changed her story.
“I’m more inclined to believe what someone wrote down at the time and submitted in an official police report than what they are now saying five years later under immense political pressure,” Martin said.
AFL-CIO, which is affiliated with AFGE, has contributed significantly to Feingold’s past campaigns.
When asked by the State Journal if anyone urged her to change her story about the memo, Ellinghuysen said no.
Feingold’s opponent in the November election, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, has faced questions of his own regarding his response to the Tomah VA scandal.
Johnson, who succeeded Feingold in 2011, was criticized after it was reported that his office failed to act on whistleblower tips about problems at the Tomah VA. Johnson later acknowledged his office could have done more to respond.
La Follette questions DFI’s apostille authority
Secretary of State Doug La Follette warned this week that an authentication process for local business documents used in foreign transactions now being offered by Gov. Scott Walker’s administration might not be valid.
But Department of Financial Institutions spokesman Tom Evenson countered that the international organization that authorizes local officials to issue apostilles — which are similar to a notarized signature, but for documents used in foreign business transactions — now recognizes DFI on its website as a valid authority alongside the secretary of state.
“Offering this service makes good business sense as it is a natural product of our notary program, allowing DFI to enhance customer service and citizen options,” Evenson said.
La Follette also said apostilles not issued by his office won’t bear the Great Seal of the State of Wisconsin and won’t be maintained by his office. He called the DFI move “one more of Walker’s slimy efforts to take control of everything.”
The schism is the only one of its kind in the country. All other states have only one office or website portal recognized by the Hague Conference on Private International Law for issuing apostilles. They can also be issued by federal court clerks.
DFI first inquired with the Hague about the change in late November and sent an official letter on Dec. 28, according to records released by the department. Since Jan. 4, the department has processed 32 apostilles, Evenson said.
In July, La Follette sued Walker’s administration for cutting funding to his office in the latest budget. His staff was cut from three full-time positions to one full-time and one part-time position, and his office was moved from a 4,000-square-foot space rented on the Square to a 600-foot office in the basement of the Capitol.
La Follette’s primary argument was that it would impede his ability to issue and store some 16,000 apostilles per year. A judge in September declined to order an injunction in the case, noting the apostilles aren’t one of La Follette’s constitutional responsibilities and don’t require a state seal.