'A concerted effort to misrepresent:' Ousted health commissioner insists he's not at fault for lead scandal

MILWAUKEE -- Ousted Milwaukee Health Commissioner Bevan Baker spoke publicly Monday, Dec. 23 for the first time in nearly two years after it was revealed the Milwaukee Health Department may have put thousands of children at risk of lead exposure -- insisting he's not at fault.

Baker has maintained from the beginning that he wasn't responsible for the serious mismanagement of the Milwaukee Health Department's Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.

Bevan Baker

On Monday, he doubled down on that sentiment, instead, blaming other departments and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Baker said he wants his name cleared from the city's lead abatement scandal.

"There's a concerted effort to misrepresent my role as health commissioner to be the only individual responsible for lead service line removal and lead in water concerns," said Baker.

William Sulton

Joined by his attorney, William Sulton, Baker said the blame should instead be directed toward the Department of Public Works and Milwaukee Water Works. Baker said in 2016, he advised Mayor Barrett of the haphazard job crews were doing replacing lead laterals on the city's north side, yet Baker said nothing was done about his concerns.

"There can be no doubt, that Mr. Baker didn't mismanage any program under which he was responsible for," said Sulton.

Contaminated water from lead pipes is only a small piece of the lead crisis that's plagued Milwaukee.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

In January 2018, an internal investigation found the Milwaukee Health Department's staff members failed to keep records of whether children who tested positive for elevated blood levels ever received necessary follow-up services. Mayor Barrett maintained that was when he, too, was made aware of the issues.

"I acted within four days of learning there were serious problems," said Barrett in 2018. "You put people in positions of authority, and you rely on them."

Federal and state investigators revealed the city improperly closed cases involving families at risk, and never issued lead removal orders at properties with lead paint -- the main source of lead poisoning.

Baker downplayed both issues on Monday, focusing solely on lead in water.

"The story that's told about him is that he poisoned kids, and that's not true," said Sulton.

Milwaukee Health Department

Mayor Barrett declined to address Baker's comments Monday.

A spokesman issued this statement to FOX6 News:

“The Mayor’s concerns about the Health Department’s lead program have always focused on protecting Milwaukee children from lead exposure. Since the Mayor first learned of the problems two years ago, the Health Department has made good progress on its lead efforts. The Mayor continues to be focused on the future and making sure Milwaukee children are kept as safe as possible.”

Officials with the Freshwater for Life Action Coalition issued this statement:

"This morning former Health Commissioner Bevan Baker releases a letter addressing a number of disturbing concerns related to the manner in which the Mayor handled lead-in-water concerns raised by FLAC and many Milwaukee community groups."

"It has been our argument for the past several years that the Mayor and his administration has not taken this matter seriously. To date, there is no comprehensive strategic funding/removal plan in place designed to remove lead service lines poisoning tap water with lead."

"The lack of urgency on the part of the Mayor as illustrated by his half-measure policies shows his indifference to public health and his lack of concern for the health of Milwaukee children."

"Baker’s letter only reaffirms what we have been stating for the past four years. The Barrett administration has been covering-up the seriousness of this matter for too long."

"It is time for the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the Milwaukee County District Attorney‘s Office to brief the public regarding their investigation of this matter. To many families in Milwaukee have been harmed for to long because of political shenanigans."