Holyoke Soldiers' Home Board Weighs Firing Of Former Superintendent After Judge Rules State's Decision Invalid

Holyoke Soldiers' Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh speaking at the 2020 Iwo Jima Day ceremony at the State House. (Photo: 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)

Trustees tasked with oversight of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home will meet next week to discuss how to proceed after a judge said only they, not the state's health and human services secretary, could decide whether to fire Superintendent Bennett Walsh for his handling of a deadly COVID-19 outbreak.

Kevin Jourdain, a Holyoke attorney who chairs the home's Board of Trustees, said the panel will convene in executive session on Sept. 30 to chart next steps following a ruling from Hampden Superior Court Judge John Ferrara that nullified Walsh's termination.

In the meantime, Walsh's fate remains unclear. His attorney hopes the ruling — which came as at least two independent investigations continue — will trigger a public reconsideration of the crisis that led to the deaths of at least 76 residents.

Unlike Gov. Charlie Baker, who said Wednesday that he expects the board to formally fire Walsh, Jourdain did not forecast a specific outcome.

"Now that Judge Ferrera has spoken, I anticipate the Board taking his guidance under advisement when we convene again shortly," Jourdain said in a statement. "We will also be reaching out to (the Executive Office of Health and Human Services) and Bennett Walsh to work with them closely on the process and decision surrounding the continued employment of Bennett Walsh as our Superintendent."

Jourdain did not specify when the board will make a decision about Walsh, saying trustees will hold a closed-doors conversation on Sept. 30 and will "take it from there."

He thanked Ferrara for a "thoughtful and carefully considered opinion."

"It has always been the goal of the Board of Trustees to ensure that our veterans have the leadership they deserve to provide them the outstanding care they deserve," Jourdain said. "In the end, it is all about serving them and any decision the Board makes will be focused solely on them and what is in their best interests in the years ahead."

Walsh took over as the soldiers' home's superintendent in 2016, and he was in charge when COVID-19 swept through the facility and numerous other long-term care facilities in February and March.

At least 76 Holyoke home residents died as a result of the highly infectious virus. Former U.S. Attorney Mark Pearlman, whom the Baker administration tapped to investigate the outbreak, concluded that Walsh and his team were slow to respond and made a series of "utterly baffling" decisions that exacerbated the crisis.

On June 24, the same day that the administration published Pearlstein's report, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders wrote to Walsh firing him.

Walsh challenged that move, arguing that Sudders did not have the authority to terminate him, and Ferrara ruled Monday that the secretary had overstepped her authority. Unlike the Chelsea Soldiers' Home, where the secretary has hiring and firing authority, any employment decisions about the Holyoke home's superintendent have to come from its board, Ferrara said.

Baker said Wednesday that he expects trustees to follow the decision by firing Walsh.

"We would expect the board, based on the Pearlstein report which made pretty clear that there were serious mistakes made over the course of the months of February and March, that they would act to remove Bennett Walsh permanently," he told reporters at an event in Lowell.

Walsh's attorney, William Bennett, could not be reached for comment Wednesday on whether he would file additional legal action if the board fired him.

Bennett said Tuesday, though, that he views Ferrara's ruling as a step toward a clearer understanding of the tragedy after his client was "vilified" by the Baker administration.

"I hope that this decision will allow people to consider that perhaps that criticism is unfair and that the actual story of what happened has not yet been understood," he said.

U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey have each been conducting their own investigations into the sequence of events at the veterans' home. The Legislature also created a special joint oversight committee, tasking it with submitting findings and recommending legislation by March 31, 2021.

"A true inquiry into the Covid outbreak at the Soldiers' Home should focus on the science," Bennett said. "Covid has a unique method of transmission. It spreads silently and is transmitted by people who do not appear to be infected. When the disease got into the Soldiers' Home, where the veterans were already vulnerable because of the living conditions and their age and health, it spread rapidly despite the good faith efforts of the staff."

Western Massachusetts Hospital CEO Val Liptak has been leading the Holyoke Soldiers' Home on an interim basis since March, when Walsh was first placed on paid administrative leave.

Baker praised Liptak's work in the nearly six months since then, saying that she has done "a heroic job under extremely difficult circumstances to right the ship there." Liptak and the National Guard are overseeing a $6 million investment to update the facility's conceptual plan, he said.

But Baker hinted he does not intend for Liptak to be a permanent replacement.

"At some point, we would like her to go back to Western Mass Hospital, but she's done a magnificent job in the meantime," he said.



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