Sen. Ron Johnson insists critics are trying to "drag" him into the controversy that led the Wisconsin Republican Party to file an ethics complaint against Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
The GOP senator, a top target for Democrats in 2016, blasted reports that his office sat on complaints about a Department of Veterans Affairs medical center over-prescribing medication. He did so during a Wednesday morning interview with regionally syndicated radio host Jerry Bader on Wisconsin’s WTAQ. Johnson also cast blame on Baldwin's office for not sharing an early copy of a VA inspector general report that identified the problem. “In a perfect world, the one member of the Wisconsin delegation that had access to the report would have shared that with other congressional offices so we also could be made aware," Johnson said, referring to the document Baldwin received in August 2014 that was not publicly reported until January. "And in a perfect world, admittedly, you know, my staff would have been able to just, I guess, divine that there was something that had to be brought to my attention."
Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, admitted "it's plausible" his staff could have done more. But, "I'm not throwing any of my staff members under the bus,” he said during the interview.
The senator's veterans services staffer corresponded with whistleblower Ryan Honl, a former facility employee. From there, Johnson's office said state staff referred the case to his subcommittee staff, but the complaints never reached Democrats, including Sen. Claire McCaskill, who served as chairwoman of the subcommittee with oversight of federal contracts at the time, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported. Honl's tips fell into "the equivalent of a congressional black hole," columnist Daniel Bice wrote on March 9. Johnson accused Bice of making "a mountain out of a molehill.”
The first-term senator explained the complaints had been received during a lame-duck session, when Capitol Hill was distracted by the 2014 election cycle and there was high turnover in the office. Two of the staffers on the email chain are no longer with the office. Johnson also said his office had been staffing up, hiring more than 20 individuals to support him as he prepared to head the committee.
Melinda Schnell, a spokeswoman for the senator who has been widely quoted in Wisconsin media reports on how the VA complaints were handled, did not respond to an email from CQ Roll Call.
“We didn’t misrepresent anything,” Johnson said, explaining no one was aware how serious the situation was until he saw the inspector general's report on Jan. 12.
"We immediately responded. We have been sending letters. We have been conducting investigations. We have been talking to whistleblowers and the survivors of these tragedies and we have been on the case," he said, adding there would be a field hearing on the VA facility at the end of March.
In addition to blaming Baldwin for not sharing the report, the senator accused the VA's acting inspector general of not doing the job of making the reports public. “I’m not on a witch hunt here,” Johnson said, adding he had to deal with transparency regarding the issue.
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