Reality Check: Senate ads try to place blame for Tomah VA drug scandal

Reality Check: Feingold ad on ‘Free Money’ needs context

Who’s to blame over a painkiller scandal at the Tomah Veteran’s hospital?

Two ads are pointing fingers at the two candidates for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin — Sen. Ron Johnson and former Sen. Russ Feingold — claiming they both knew of a doctor over-prescribing prescription opiates and didn’t do enough to stop it.

One ad features former Tomah VA worker and whistleblower Ryan Honl whose original story sparked an investigation into the matter, and is paid for by Freedom Partners Action Fund, a Super PAC funded largely by the Koch Brothers and other conservative donors.

“I found out that Russ Feingold got a memo in 2009 that outlined veteran harm and nothing was done,” Honl says in the ad.

News 3 finds this needs clarification.

The memo in question was sent by a union official who represents Tomah workers, Lin Ellinghuysen. News 3 couldn’t reach her for this story, but she’s made multiple statements about the memo.

A news story last October highlights two memos, in 2008 and 2009, detailing issues with the doctor and narcotics. Both were marked by Ellinghuysen as “hand-delivered” to the offices of Feingold and other Democrats.

In October she said she told someone to deliver the memos for her, but had “no proof they were ever delivered.” Then in January she said she made the delivery note “in error,” and that she had a “foggy memory” about any meetings with Feingold about issues at Tomah.

As for Feingold, he and the other Democrats listed in the report say they have no record of actually getting the memo.

“Russ Feingold ignored concerns while veterans were dying at the facility,” Honl says in the ad.

News 3 finds this also needs clarification. While the memo detailed “unexpected deaths” at Tomah, including suicides, the only death officially considered linked to this issue was in 2014. That’s five years after the original memo and four years after Feingold was voted out of office.

Feingold is arguing in his ad that instead, Johnson is to blame.

“When Johnson’s office learned of the failures at Tomah he did nothing,” the ad says. “Complaints changed hands from one aide to another in a congressional black hole.”

News 3 finds this needs clarification.

Johnson’s office says it got complaints from Honl, and they were sent to a Senate subcommittee. It turns out, though, that the paperwork was only sent to another subcommittee aide who never told Chairwoman Sen. Claire McCaskill or Johnson. Johnson aides have said he was not personally aware of any issues at the VA until January of 2015.

“Johnson even admitted they were distracted,” the ad says.

“Had this not occurred during an election cycle when there is an awful lot of turnover when people are doing job interviews and stuff,” Johnson is quoted in the ad as saying in a radio interview, which is no longer published online.

Johnson said in that interview that two of his staffers, who should have passed along information, had left for other offices and didn’t relay messages properly. Does that mean they were distracted? That’s for you to decide.

Freedom Partners released a new version of its ad Monday, where the central claim has been modified.

“I found out about multiple memos marked ‘Delivered to Senator Feingold,’ outlining veteran harm, and nothing was done,” Honl says in the new ad. “Russ Feingold could have started an investigation while veterans were dying at the facility.”

The Super PAC said the ad is being distributed throughout the state as part of its $2-million ad buy.