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'If this gets out...We will be held to the grindstone:' Texts show top health department officials tried to keep lead program problems from public

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- New text messages between top employees in the Milwaukee Health Department highlight the dysfunction that led up to the resignation of Commissioner Bevan Baker in January.

CBS 58 Investigates obtained hundreds of texts through an open records request. Those messages are between then-Health Commissioner Baker and Tiffany Barta, who at the time was the director of nursing but now runs the lead program.

The texts date back to August 2017. Baker and Barta talk about what a mess the lead program is and how bad it will be for the department if gets out.

On August 16, 2017 Barta texts Baker, “As an FYI, I will be submitting to you a plan for the restoration of the lead program, to also include lead and pregnancy.” She continues, “Additionally, I will provide a plan that Tasha [another health department employee] and I have worked on that will put MHD in a good light.  This plan can be used to deflect away from all of the internal/external nonsense…”

Then on September 27, 2017 Barta fires off a series of texts to Baker about the massive problems in the lead poisoning prevention program.

"It is my understanding that there are no polices in lead, except the ones that I used 5 years ago…" she writes. “Bottom line another chelates child was sent home to an uncleared home.  WTH!”

Chelation is a medical treatment for children with severe lead poisoning. The "uncleared home" refers to a home that still has lead hazards.

"…if this gets out, that the lead program is this messed up! We will be held to the grind stone!" she texts. “I work very hard; weekends, nights ( you can relate), no compensation ,etc.  I could say no, but I don't want you to have to answer to the crap they will serve you across the street.”

The Health Department offices are located across the street from City Hall, where Aldermen and the Mayor have offices.

Baker texts her back saying, “Tiffany, Thanks for letting me know. I am here to help. It's clear that you need my involvement. Let's talk about this tomorrow. I appreciate your efforts to date. Pace yourself. Together we will clean up and clear out this mess.”

Still problems persisted and come to a head at the end of the year. Barta texts Baker on December 29, ““We can't change what has happened, however we can show the Mayor and council that we have a plan."

Then on January 4, 2018, Barta fires off another series of texts, explaining how she wants to divert all the nurses to lead poisoning cases.

“I am working on what would be needed for this department to deploy all nursing staff to address lead,” Barta texts. “Training is the biggest issues, b/c we currently do not have any clear processes in that program.”

Days later, as the problems within the department became public, Baker resigned.

In a statement, Jeff Fleming, a spokesman for Mayor Tom Barrett’s administration said, ““Today’s release of texts confirms what the Mayor has been saying for months. Once he learned of the issues in the Health Department, he acted immediately, made the information public, and began working to address the problems.”

Multiple sources tell CBS 58 Investigates Bevan Baker had agreed to testify this Thursday at the Steering and Rules Committee meeting, but now those sources say he's backing out because of the release of these texts messages.

The committee does have the power to subpoena Baker to testify, but so far that hasn't happened.

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- CBS 58 Investigates has obtained text messages between the former Milwaukee Health Commissioner Bevan Baker and the Health Department's Director of Nursing. 

In one text, sent a year ago, the Director of Nursing tells Baker a lead-poisoned kid was sent home without proper follow-up saying,

"Bottom line, another cheleated child was sent home to an uncleared home."

Stay with CBS 58 on air and online for the latest on this developing story. 

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