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OPINION

At Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, moral accountability lingers for Charlie Baker

If full accountability for the dead veterans in the Holyoke Soldiers' Home matters — then it does matter who hired Bennett Walsh.

Governor Charlie Baker held a State House news conference June 24 to discuss a report on the deaths of at least 76 veterans with COVID-19 at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home.
Governor Charlie Baker held a State House news conference June 24 to discuss a report on the deaths of at least 76 veterans with COVID-19 at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home.Sam Doran/Sam Doran/State House News Servi

Does it matter who hired Bennett Walsh to run the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, where at least 76 residents died of COVID-19 due to catastrophic management decisions?

If full accountability for those dead veterans matters — then yes, it does matter who hired Walsh. That’s why Governor Charlie Baker has tried to put more than social distance between himself and Walsh. But unlike other designated fall guys, Walsh isn’t making it easy. He went to court, first trying to bar the facility’s board of trustees from firing him, and then arguing that a June 24 letter of termination signed by the governor and Marylou Sudders, Baker’s secretary of health and human services, is invalid, because only the Soldiers’ Home board has the power to do that.

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A judge will decide who’s right on the legal question. As for the moral accountability question, that falls to the court of public opinion, which now has some gaps between Baker’s public comments and the actual record to consider.

The story of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home tells a lot about who we are as a society and a government.

It’s the story of how easily we forget about old people, especially those who live 90 miles away in Western Massachusetts. It’s the story of how politicians pay tribute to veterans on holidays but somehow never make those vets a year-round priority.

It’s also the story of how political connections pave the way for employment, even for the difficult and specialized job of running a facility that promises veterans “care with honor and dignity.” According to the report prepared by former federal prosecutor Mark W. Pearlstein, Walsh, a decorated Marine Corps veteran with no experience in health care or long-term care, was encouraged by a state lawmaker to apply for the superintendent’s job.

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During a June 24 press conference, Baker said Walsh “was appointed by the board.” He also said the board “really wanted Bennett Walsh to have that job.” Yet a court filing signed under oath by Sudders states that “the board did not specifically recommend that the governor appoint the plaintiff Bennett Walsh or any one candidate to the position of superintendent.”

The court filings also include a formal letter of appointment sent to Walsh from the Health and Human Services department, which is dated May 26, 2016, and signed by Sudders and Baker. Next to her signature, Sudders wrote “Congratulations.” Next to his signature, Baker wrote “Thanks.”

The formal letter of appointment sent to Bennett Walsh from Health and Human Services Secretary Mary Lou Sudders.
The formal letter of appointment sent to Bennett Walsh from Health and Human Services Secretary Mary Lou Sudders.HANDOUT

During the June 24 press conference, Baker also said, “The first time I ever met him [Walsh], or talked to him was when we swore him in.” But according to Walsh’s attorney, William Bennett, on April 27, 2016, Walsh was interviewed, separately, for 20 to 30 minutes each, by Baker, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, and then-Baker chief of staff Steve Kadish.

The investigation conducted by Pearlstein at Baker’s behest concluded that veterans died of COVID-19 because of choices made or approved of by Walsh. In a letter signed by Baker and Sudders, he was informed of his termination under Massachusetts General Law Chapter 6, section 40. Walsh’s lawyer contends that section applies only to the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea, not to the one in Holyoke. However, administration lawyers say another section of the law grants that authority to the governor.

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Asked for comment about Walsh’s legal challenge to his firing, a Baker administration spokesperson issued this statement via e-mail: “Bennett Walsh has been terminated and the independent report by former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein speaks for itself. The administration does not comment on pending litigation.”

Pre-pandemic reports of staff deficiencies and management problems made their way up the Baker administration chain of command. But everyone, it seems, just crossed their fingers and hoped for the best. Then, the worst happened. As tragedy unfolded, Walsh was deemed responsible, along with Francisco Ureña, the secretary of veterans’ services, who resigned.

In the end, this is a story of a flawed and entrenched political system set up to let that tragedy happen. Then, the governor who oversees it was able to isolate blame, and hope we would all forget that the old soldiers of Holyoke didn’t just fade away. They died a terrible death.

To complete the circle of accountability, yes, it does matter who hired Walsh.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.