- Associated Press - Saturday, May 28, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, in the midst of a tough re-election battle, plans to release a report next week detailing a congressional committee’s yearlong investigation into a painkiller-abuse scandal at Tomah’s Veterans Affairs medical facility, which was once known as “Candy Land.”

Tomah has already been a flashpoint in Johnson’s race against Democrat Russ Feingold, with attack ads blaming each other for not doing enough to prevent abuses at the facility in western Wisconsin. Johnson earlier this month said that he’s done nothing to politicize issues at Tomah; the ad campaign attacking Feingold came from an independent group backing Johnson.

Tuesday’s hearing is the second in Tomah in 14 months by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which Johnson chairs. He said in a Friday interview with CNN that committee’s report will lay out all the details about what’s happened in Tomah and why “people just didn’t do anything about it.”

Inspectors for the VA in 2014 found that doctors were over-prescribing opioid painkillers, leading to the “Candy Land” nickname by some veterans. The deaths of three people who were cared for at Tomah remain under investigation. The VA probe also determined there was an atmosphere of fear among staff members, which affected patient care, and that those who spoke out were subject to intimidation.

Several Tomah VA officials - including former director Mario Desanctis and former chief of staff David Houlihan - have since been fired. Houlihan was nicknamed “candy man” by some patients for allegedly handing out excess narcotics.

Two top officials from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs were expected to provide an update on Tomah’s current state on Tuesday, as well as comment on the committee’s report.

An outside group backing Johnson, funded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, has been running $2 million worth of television ads and billboards in Wisconsin accusing Feingold of ignoring concerns about Tomah when he was in the Senate, specifically a 2009 Tomah employees’ union memo detailing alleged over-prescription abuse at the facility.

“Wisconsin’s veterans deserve real answers and real care - not the political exploitation we’ve seen from Senator Johnson and his allies in recent weeks,” said Feingold’s campaign spokesman Michael Tyler. “In Tuesday’s hearing, Senator Johnson has a chance to move away from politicizing his committee chairmanship, finally accept some accountability, and focus on the reforms and resources needed to provide Wisconsin’s veterans with the care that they’ve earned.”

The union official who wrote that memo, Lin Ellinghuysen, told The Associated Press in an email that it is a “total lie” that Feingold received the memo when he was in the Senate.

“It is sad to see those who know better stand by and let false ads like this run in Wisconsin,” she said in an email, adding that she told Johnson’s committee in 2015 that Feingold never got the memo.

Senator Johnson’s staff knows these ads and their allegations are untrue,” she said.

Johnson, when asked about the ad earlier this month, said he has not politicized the issue. But he did not call on the independent group supporting him to take the ad down.

“I actually believe in freedom of speech,” Johnson said then.

Feingold has responded with a television ad of his own saying Johnson ignored complaints in 2014 from a former employee at Tomah, who is now backing Johnson because of how he’s responding to the issue. That whistleblower, Ryan Honl, appears in the Freedom Partners Action Fund super PAC ad attacking Feingold.

Johnson’s campaign spokesman Brian Reisinger said launching the investigation and “shining the light of day on Tomah” shows he is taking “effective action.”

Ron has done his job,” Reisinger said. “It is Senator Feingold who is politicizing tragedies.”

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