Wisconsin health official won’t handle matters affecting former clients

MADISON – Gov. Tony Evers’ new health secretary said Monday she would leave matters affecting her former lobbying clients to her top deputy to avoid conflicts of interest. 

Karen Timberlake took over the state Department of Health Services last month after Secretary Andrea Palm was named to the No. 2 job in the federal Department of Health and Human Services. 

Karen Timberlake

Timberlake ran the Wisconsin agency under former Gov. Jim Doyle from 2008 to 2011 and in recent years has lobbied in the state for health-care interests.

In an interview Monday, Timberlake said she would recuse herself from matters affecting her former clients. That goes beyond what state law requires.

“I think it’s the right thing to do because everyone would expect that I’m in this job to do the best that I can on behalf of all people in the state of Wisconsin,” she said. “No one would want any of my former clients to get any sort of special treatment.”

The state puts limits on government officials who go on to do lobbying work, but not on lobbyists who become government officials. 

Timberlake said she would leave matters affecting her former clients to Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk.

The agency Timberlake heads oversees swaths of the health care industry and helps determine how much money it makes in Wisconsin. Timberlake’s department runs state-federal Medicaid programs like BadgerCare Plus and Family Care that cost billions of dollars a year.

The Democratic governor initially named Timberlake to the job on an interim basis but Timberlake said Monday she is committed to staying in the post until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When she took over as secretary, Timberlake and aides did not say how she would handle potential conflicts. At the time, two national ethics experts said in interviews that she should separate herself from decisions affecting her past clients to avoid conflicts. 

Richard Painter, who served as the chief ethics lawyer to President George W. Bush and White House staff, said last month that Timberlake should not have a role in such decisions. Norman Eisen, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who advised President Barack Obama on lobbying regulations, took a similar stance.

On Monday, Timberlake said she had adopted a personal policy along those lines.

“It’s a simpler set of rules to follow to simply say that anything I was directly lobbying on before I’m not going to be the final decision-maker on,” she said.

As a lobbyist with Michael Best Strategies, Timberlake represented DentaQuest, an oral health company; MyPath, a company that serves people with disabilities; Rogers Behavioral Health, which lobbies to raise Medicaid payments for behavioral health providers; and the Network for Innovation in Senior Care, a consortium of long-term and rehabilitative care providers.

In addition, Timberlake lobbied for two health care information technology entities: the Wisconsin Health Information Organization and the Wisconsin Statewide Health Information Network.

When Timberlake leaves her post, she will not be able to immediately return to lobbying on the same issues. State law bars former government officials from appearing before the agencies where they used to work for a year.

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.