Milwaukee Council Head Reveals City Health Department Under Criminal Investigation

Troubled Lead Poisoning Prevention Program At Issue

Milwaukee city hall
Casey Eisenreich (CC-BY-NC)

Milwaukee Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton has revealed the Milwaukee Health Department is under criminal investigation.

The revelation came in a response from Hamilton to another council member over criticism surrounding the former health commissioner.

The health department has been embroiled in scandal for its mismanagement of the city’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program and council members have long wanted to find what health department staff knew about deficiencies and when.

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Former Milwaukee Health Commissioner Bevan Baker, who abruptly left his post in January, has been a subject of interest for council members.

Last month, Hamilton announced Baker would testify before a council committee but that was called off.

In a press release Monday, Ald. Tony Zielinski demanded Hamilton explain why he hasn’t subpoenaed Baker to testify.

“It sure seems to me that by not subpoenaing Baker the president is playing politics with the health and safety of our citizens,” Zielinski said.

Hamilton responded.

“At the advice of his attorney, Mr. Baker, if subpoenaed, would simply plead the 5th and exercise his right not to answer questions even though he is compelled to be present,” Hamilton said in a statement Tuesday. “Understanding this, there would have been no need to subpoena Mr. Baker while the DA is conducting its investigation.”

The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office is conducting the investigation.

By Wednesday morning, Zielinski was calling on the state’s two gubernatorial candidates to lay out their plans for addressing Milwaukee’s lead problems.

An internal report published in January said staffing shortages and inadequate training were partly to blame.

A visit from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development resulted in a stop work order in February after finding deficiencies in the city’s lead abatement efforts in homes.

And a report by the state’s Department of Health Services published in May reiterated findings of poor or nonexistent recordkeeping.

Most recently, a records request filed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel unveiled September 2017 text messages between Baker and the city’s Director of Nursing Tiffany Barta. In them, they acknowledge the department accidentally sent a lead-poisoned child to a home that was not properly lead-abated.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 11:10 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018 to include original reporting from Wisconsin Public Radio.