The Perfect Enemy | New report criticizes oversight of Holyoke Soldiers’ home official who presided over COVID outbreak - The Boston Globe
May 26, 2022

New report criticizes oversight of Holyoke Soldiers’ home official who presided over COVID outbreak – The Boston Globe

New report criticizes oversight of Holyoke Soldiers’ home official who presided over COVID outbreak  The Boston GlobeView Full Coverage on Google News

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A report by the state inspector general released Friday raises questions about the 2016 appointment of former Holyoke Soldiers’ Home superintendent Bennett Walsh, who was in charge when a deadly COVID-19 outbreak hit his facility in March 2020, killing 76 veterans.

Governor Charlie Baker, state Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, and the home’s board of trustees failed to “follow the statute that gives the Board the power to appoint the superintendent,” said state Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha’s office in a statement accompanying the report.

The statement said the board recommended three candidates, but Sudders met only with Walsh, and Baker appointed him as the home’s superintendent.

Baker had initially distanced himself from the hiring of Walsh, telling reporters in June 2020, “I can tell you that the first time I ever met him or talked to him was when we swore him in.”

But the Globe Spotlight team reported last year that that wasn’t true: Baker interviewed Walsh for about a half-hour three weeks before naming him superintendent. Baker finally acknowledged that meeting, reversing himself publicly, at a news conference 11 months later. “I forgot,” Baker said of the interview with Walsh, who had political connections.

The inspector general’s report released Friday said the office was already looking into Walsh before the pandemic had even struck. The office launched an investigation of Walsh in 2019 after receiving “an anonymous complaint raising several concerns” about his management, the statement said.

The office’s investigation, which spanned from May 2016 to February 2020, also identified “critical shortcomings in the management of the Home as well as concerns regarding the supervision of” Walsh, the statement said.

The inspector general’s report said Walsh created an unprofessional and negative work environment, retaliated against staffers he felt were disloyal, showed a lack of engagement in the home’s operations, and undermined the chain of command.

The statement said state health and human service officials as well as veterans service workers “failed to adequately address serious complaints by senior managers and others at the Home.”

In addition, the statement said, the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services launched two separate reviews of Walsh, but those were “flawed, unnecessarily restricted in scope and biased” in his favor.

Aides to Baker and Sudders didn’t immediately respond to requests for comments on Friday afternoon.

The devastation at the home was one of the early traumas as the pandemic swept through the region.

After the outbreak, state Attorney General Maura Healey brought criminal charges against Walsh and the former medical director, alleging they put elderly residents at risk by combining sick and healthy residents with dementia in the same unit because of a staffing shortage.

A judge dismissed the charges in November, but Healey, a Democratic candidate for governor, has appealed. The appeal remains pending.

The findings from Friday’s report followed earlier findings from a separate outside report on the COVID-19 outbreak at the home commissioned by the Baker administration.

That report, released in June 2020 and prepared by former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein, found leaders at the home made “utterly baffling” mistakes. A 2021 review by the Spotlight Team of Baker’s arrangement with Pearlstein raised questions about the independence of Pearlstein’s report.

Even though Walsh, a former Marine, had never run a comparable facility, one trustee felt during the hiring process that Walsh “was considered a top candidate by the administration and that the administration had predetermined the decision to appoint Mr. Walsh,” said Cunha’s Friday report.

Walsh, Cunha’s report continued, “became visibly angry with employees, yelled at them and stated publicly that he wanted to ‘hit’ and ‘belt’ one particular employee; he also said that he wanted to hurt a veteran who had spoken out against him. He would tell staff that they were ‘dead’ to him. He interpreted staff comments and concerns as disloyalty or personal attacks on him. For instance, he became visibly angry with an employee during a meeting because she said that she had to leave at a specific time. He berated her in front of her colleagues to the point where she became visibly upset.”

Cunha’s report continued, “one employee told a manager at [the Executive Office of Health and Human Services] that the superintendent developed a ‘blank stare’ when discussing operational issues related to various aspects of running the home. The superintendent was often away from the Home during regular business hours. When he was absent, his staff reported that they did not always know where he was.”

Walsh, Cunha’s report said, was “absent from the Home frequently throughout his tenure. In addition, he chose to participate in many activities that were unnecessary or wholly unrelated to his role or the Home. Instead of focusing on ongoing staffing issues and vacancies in several key leadership positions, Superintendent Walsh prioritized his outside activities.”

Despite the “numerous” complaints lodged against Walsh, Cunha’s report said state health and human services officials and staff failed to “respond appropriately to these complaints. Most notably, [EOHHS] leadership and staff addressed each new complaint as if it were the first. They did not investigate the complaints adequately or evaluate them holistically to identify patterns of the superintendent’s behavior. Nor did [EOHHS] leadership take steps to reevaluate whether he should remain in his role at the Home.”

Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.