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Releasing Texts And Emails, Suspended Soldiers' Home Boss Denies Cover-Up

Former Holyoke Soldiers' Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh speaking at the 2020 Iwo Jima Day ceremony at the State House. (Chris Van Buskirk/SHNS/File)
Former Holyoke Soldiers' Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh speaking at the 2020 Iwo Jima Day ceremony at the State House. (Chris Van Buskirk/SHNS/File)

The attorney for suspended Holyoke Soldiers' Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh has released 19 documents that he claims proves his client did not try to cover up a deadly COVID-19 outbreak. Seventy-six veterans who were residents at the state-run facility have died while testing positive for the virus.

The texts and emails indicate Walsh communicated with his superiors and others about the outbreak for the week prior to his being placed on leave. Some officials, including Gov. Charlie Baker, have said they were taken by surprise about the severity of the situation, and moved swiftly to bring in new leadership at the Soldiers' Home.

Attorney William Bennett represents Walsh and is his uncle, as well as a former district attorney in Hampden County.

"For anyone to suggest that he covered up, concealed, or tried to hide a public health crisis affecting the veterans he was committed to serve is a slander on his good name," Bennett said at a news conference Tuesday.

Bennett said Walsh had been ordered not to make any public statements about the outbreak without prior approval, and had previously been reprimanded for commenting at a charity presentation. But on the evening of Sunday, March 29, Bennett said Walsh received a call from Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, and gave the mayor an update on the situation.

The conversation with Morse "triggered an unusually heated response from state officials that resulted in his suspension," Bennett said. "I believe this is why he was suspended and placed on leave."

Bennett highlighted 19 documents, which include text message conversations between Walsh and the state's secretary of veterans' services, Francisco Ureña. In the messages, Walsh provides updates on testing results for Soldiers' Home residents. Also included was an email from Walsh to Ureña dated March 27,  in which Walsh asked for help from the National Guard.

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"Please advice (sic) if you need additional information and what the possible time frame would be for procurement," Walsh wrote.

Ureña responded 19 minutes later: "We are exploring all options at this time."

Bennett, the attorney, said Walsh's request was denied later that afternoon, but he did not provide documentation to that effect. The National Guard was eventually brought to the home after Walsh had been placed on leave and new leadership appointed.

The documents also included regular reports on COVID-19 cases in Holyoke to state officials. Another email, dated March 22, shows Walsh telling several people, including Ureña, that he notified the state Department of Public Health and Holyoke's Board of Health about a positive test.

In a statement, a spokesperson with the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which has been leading the Baker Administration's response at the Soldiers' Home, noted there's an ongoing investigation launched the governor, and said officials are deeply saddened by the loss of life.

"The tragic situation at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home is a reminder of the insidious nature of COVID-19, a virus that is having a devastating impact in our communities and long-term care facilities," the statement said. "The circumstances that led to the heartbreaking situation at Holyoke Soldiers' Home – including management and oversight – are the subject of a full and impartial investigation ordered by the Governor, led by Attorney Mark Pearlstein."

The Massachusetts Attorney General's office, the state Inspector General and the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts have also launched probes.

At his press briefing on Tuesday before Bennett's appearance, Baker was asked when his administration learned of the severity of the situation at the Soldiers' Home, and what guidance was provided.

The governor repeated his previous statements that he, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Health Secretary Marylou Sudders only learned of "where this whole thing was" late on a Sunday night, with a quick response the following morning.

"I'm waiting for [Pearlstein's] report, because I think there's a lot of back-and-forth on what happened," Baker said. "And that's understandable giving the enormity of the tragedy there, but I'm waiting for his report."

Baker said Pearlstein has interviewed "many people and looked at thousands of documents," and said he thinks the report "will be done reasonably soon."

This story first published on New England Public Radio.

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