City’s health department under criminal investigation, Common Council president says

Aldermen spar in exchange of public statements

Common Council president Ashanti Hamilton

A criminal investigation of the Milwaukee Health Department is underway, Common Council president Ashanti Hamilton disclosed in a letter that was made public on Tuesday.

Common Council president Ashanti Hamilton

Hamilton issued the letter in response to fellow alderman Tony Zielinski, who on Monday released a public statement criticizing Hamilton for not subpoenaing former health commissioner Bevan Baker to testify before the Common Council about his management of the city’s lead program.

Baker, who led the department since 2004, stepped down as health commissioner in January after information surfaced that the department had failed to follow up with families of children in Milwaukee who tested positive for elevated lead levels over the last three years.

Every year, about 25,000 children in the city undergo blood lead tests, 3,000 of which, on average, indicate elevated blood levels. The medical provider who conducts the testing is required to notify the family of the results and conduct follow-up testing if necessary. The city health department also receives those reports and is required to notify families and follow up with them. From 2015 to 2017, the department did not adequately follow up with the affected families, officials said.

On Monday, Zielinksi accused Hamilton of failing to subpoena Baker to discuss his alleged mismanagement. 

“Delay, delay, delay seems to be the President’s mantra here,” Zielinski said. The real issue is transparency – transparency (and truth) that the citizens and families of Milwaukee deserve. It sure seems to me that by not subpoenaing Baker, (Hamilton) is playing politics with the health and safety of our citizens.”

In his response Tuesday, Hamilton said Baker had initially agreed to answer questions during a hearing, but then sought legal representation after learning that the District Attorney’s office was continuing their criminal investigation of the health department and would be present at that hearing.

“Understanding this, there would have been no need to subpoena Mr. Baker while the DA is conducting its investigation,” Hamilton said in his response to Zielinski. “I am not interested in wasting staff and council members’ time to create a spectacle that would produce nothing but an opportunity for you to grandstand on the issue.”

Zielinski

Hamilton said the department has been audited by the state, investigated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and has been the subject of multiple city personnel investigations.

“All of these investigations have led to the same conclusion – mismanagement, incompetence, and a lack of leadership were the central cause of the lead program failures,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton accused Zielinski and his “accomplices” of offering “only criticism and conspiracy theories wrapped in misinformation and confusion.”

“So, as your leader, I ask that you excuse yourself from the table where the hard decisions are being made or I, by God’s will, will excuse you…again,” Hamilton said. 

Hamilton’s office declined on Wednesday to comment further on his letter. Officials with the Milwaukee Health Department could not immediately be reached Wednesday.

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