The suspended superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, where 33 residents have died in the state’s largest fatal coronavirus outbreak, has gone to court to fight efforts to fire him.
Bennett M. Walsh was placed on paid leave from the state-run elderly care facility last month for allegedly failing to notify state and local officials that residents had tested positive for the coronavirus or follow safety procedures to prevent a broader outbreak. Walsh has denied the allegations and accused state officials of falsely claiming they were unaware of the severity of the outbreak.
The facility’s board of trustees were slated to meet in executive session on Saturday. But on Friday, Walsh filed a motion in Hampden Superior Court to postpone the meeting until he can speak with other officials he had supervised, including one he said should also face scrutiny.
“The majority of the decisions for which the Commonwealth takes issue were in the direct supervision and control of the medical director of the facility, not Mr. Walsh himself,'' Walsh and his attorney wrote in court papers. “The medical director should also be afforded the opportunity to participate and retain counsel to protect his interests.”
A judge postponed the meeting and scheduled a telephone hearing on the matter for Thursday.
Last week, federal prosecutors said they had opened a civil rights investigation into the home. Governor Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey had previously launched investigations.
In court papers, Walsh said he has already been twice interviewed by Mark Pearlstein, a former federal prosecutor who Baker hired to oversee the state’s investigation.
Walsh, whose yearly salary is $123,752, said he wants his termination hearing to be delayed until all three investigations are complete and he can review witness statements and documents.
"Mr. Walsh is on paid administrative leave and has no current role in the oversight or management of the Soldiers’ Home and as a result, there is no immediate need to take action,'' Walsh wrote.
Baker appointed Val Liptak, chief executive of Western Massachusetts Hospital, as interim superintendent of the facility and deployed a National Guard contingent to expedite coronavirus testing, distribute personal protective equipment, and relieve overburdened nurses.
Last week, Cory Bombredi of Service Employees International Union Local 888, which represents the home’s employees, filed a class-action grievance with state officials over how administrators handled the outbreak.
“Our members have all told me they are in fear of their lives, the lives of their families and the lives of our veterans because of what has happened,” he wrote. We cannot sit back and allow this to continue any longer."
The grievance called for four other administrators to be placed on administrative leave.
“Our workers have all told the same story, and that draws us to the conclusion that Mr. Walsh did not act alone in the decisions that have led up to the countless deaths of our veterans,” he wrote.
Since the outbreak was reported in late March, 40 veterans have died, with 33 of the deaths linked to coronavirus. Another 88 veterans have tested positive, as have one quarter of employees.