Tomah whistleblower, veteran’s widow disagree over Baldwin

October 4, 2018
1 of 2
FILE - In this Sept. 20, 2018 file photo, Sen. Tammy Baldwin speaks to supporters in Janesville, Wis. Republican U.S. Senate candidate Leah Vukmir told Democratic Sen. Baldwin on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018, that "your lies are spiraling," as Baldwin and Democrats unleashed more attacks on Vukmir's record with the election less than five weeks away. (Angela Major /The Janesville Gazette via AP, File)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Gulf War veteran who blew the whistle on the prescription drug crisis at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center said he thinks it would be “immoral” to vote for Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

The comments from Ryan Honl, a Libertarian, drew a sharp rebuke Thursday from Heather Simcakoski, the widow of veteran Jason Simcakoski who died in 2014 due to “mixed use toxicity” while being treated at Tomah.

Baldwin’s reaction to the Tomah scandal has been an issue in her re-election campaign, with her Republican opponent Leah Vukmir saying she failed to adequately respond. Outside conservative groups have also attacked Baldwin on the issue.

Baldwin has defended her reaction by pointing to the passage of a law she introduced named after Simcakoski and designed to increase oversight of opioid prescriptions issued at VA facilities.

Honl, in comments first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said he felt compelled to speak out now after Heather Simcakoski and her in-laws cut a pair of campaign ads for Baldwin. Honl claimed that Baldwin had “used” the Simcakoski family when she produced the ads.

Honl, in an interview with The Associated Press, said he was surprised by the ads because Jason Simcakoski’s parents told him in 2016 they didn’t plan to get involved in politics. Marvin and Linda Simcakoski did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Heather Simcakoski told AP that Honl was lying and said his comments were “incredibly upsetting.”

Honl said he didn’t want to argue with the family and he has no plans to cut an ad or do anything to help Vukmir’s campaign, even though he intends to vote for her.

“My sole focus is calling out Tammy Baldwin,” he said.

Honl is a 46-year-old West Point graduate who worked at Tomah as a secretary in the hospital’s mental health clinic before resigning in 2014 and filing a federal whistleblower complaint on his way out.

He is also a longtime critic of Baldwin and briefly considered running as a Republican against Democratic U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, of La Crosse. Honl said he’s since “buried the hatchet” with Kind and endorsed him for re-election this year.

Heather Simcakoski and her in-laws praised Baldwin in the ads , saying it is “shameful” that Jason Simcakoski’s death was being used against Baldwin.

She reiterated that on Thursday.

“Either work with us to fix the VA like Tammy has or stop talking about my husband’s death,” she said.

Vukmir seized on Honl’s statement, saying voters in November will hold Baldwin accountable for what happened at Tomah.

“As a military mom, it pains me to know Baldwin knew about the opioid crisis at Tomah and refused to take action to help our veterans because she had more concern for her political career,” Vukmir said.

Baldwin has been criticized for not making public a report from the Department of Veterans Affairs’ inspector general that said physicians at Tomah were over-prescribing opioids.

Baldwin later said her office had made mistakes, leading her to fire one staffer, demote another and cut the pay of her chief of staff.

There is no evidence that Baldwin took steps to cover up what was happening at Tomah and a Senate committee that investigated it determined she had not engaged in a cover up.

“Veterans from across the state and the Simcakoski family have spoken out to stop the politicization of veterans and support Tammy Baldwin for her work to hold the VA accountable and improve veterans’ health care,” said Baldwin’s spokesman Bill Neidhardt. “Senator Baldwin has worked with the Simcakoski family to craft and pass Jason’s Law, and she has worked across party lines to secure vital investments to support America’s veterans.”


This version of the story story corrects Simcakoski’s first name to Jason instead of Ryan in the 6th paragraph.


Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sbauerAP


Sign up for the AP’s weekly newsletter showcasing our best reporting from Texas and the Midwest: http://apne.ws/2u1RMfv

Update hourly