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Report critical of ex-leader at veterans home torn by COVID

The leader of a the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, where 76 veterans died after testing positive for the coronavirus in the spring of 2020, lacked both the leadership skills and the temperament to run such a facility when he was hired in 2016, according to a blistering state Inspector General's report released Friday.

The 91-page report, which covers the period from May 2016 until February 2020 — just before the pandemic struck with full force — was also highly critical of the process that led to the hiring of Bennett Walsh as superintendent of the Home and of state oversight of the home.

The investigation that led to the report started in 2019 in response to pre-pandemic complaints about Walsh.

“Superintendent Walsh did not have and did not develop the leadership capacity or temperament for the role of superintendent,” an executive summary of the report said. “He created an unprofessional and negative work environment, retaliated against employees he deemed disloyal, demonstrated a lack of engagement in the home’s operations and circumvented his chain of command.”

Walsh was also frequently absent during regular business hours and staff did not always know where he was.

The report acknowledges that Walsh inherited some problems with the home when he was appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker in 2016, including ongoing staffing issues, tension with unions representing employees and key leadership vacancies.

“Even with these management challenges, the office found that Superintendent Walsh was not engaged in the broad range of leadership duties required to manage the home,” the report said.

Walsh declined to answer questions from the Inspector General’s office and instead invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination, the report said. A voicemail seeking a response was left with his attorneys.

An attorney for Walsh has in the past defended the way he ran the home, and blamed the state for failing to respond to requests for help.

The report also criticized the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services and the state Department of Veterans’ Services for not adequately addressing staff complaints about Walsh. An email seeking comment was left with a spokesperson for the governor's office.

The Baker administration said it is reviewing the report, but noted said it had already addressed several of the recommendations cited in the report.

"The Administration filed legislation almost two years ago to strengthen oversight of the soldiers’ homes and looks forward to addressing these issues with the Legislature," the statement read.

The center for sick and aging veterans in the spring of 2020 had one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks at a longterm care facility in the nation. At least 76 veterans died, and dozens of others as well as staff members fell ill with the disease.

Walsh and the home's former medical director were charged with criminal neglect by the state attorney general, but the charges were dismissed in November by a judge who cited a lack of evidence.

Walsh was suspended and then resigned in September 2020.

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