Several state lawmakers Monday urged Governor Charlie Baker to appear before the Legislature to answer new questions about his own personal responsibility and his administration’s role in the crisis at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, where more than 76 veterans died in a COVID-19 outbreak.
“I think he should come before the Legislature,” said Senator James Eldridge, Democrat of Acton. “I am just outraged by what happened at the home. It was years in the making and there were many warning signs. Governor Baker needs to take responsibility for the tragedy that happened at the Soldiers’ Home and not just shift blame onto others.
“Governor Baker was deferring to powerful political players in Western Massachusetts and not thinking of the best interests of the veterans being cared for at the soldiers home in Holyoke,” he added.
Eldridge and other lawmakers’ calls to summon Baker before the Legislature came after a Boston Globe Spotlight Team report this past week that described the behind-the-scenes roles of Baker and his Health and Human Services secretary, Marylou Sudders, in the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home tragedy.
The report revealed that former Soldiers’ Home superintendent Bennett Walsh was a politically connected hire by Baker, and that Sudders was directly involved in supervising Walsh and addressing serious management problems under his leadership that were evident long before the pandemic.
The story also detailed how an outside investigation by former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein — commissioned by Baker — contained errors and omissions, several of which deflected blame from Baker and Sudders. Pearlstein has previously said he stands by his report.
Neither Baker nor Sudders have fully addressed their roles with the now-disgraced Walsh. Instead, Baker has repeatedly referred generally to “our administration” taking responsibility and both have laid blame solely on officials below them, particularly Walsh and the state secretary of Veterans’ Services, Francisco Ureña.
The reaction to the Globe story Monday came as a special joint committee of the Legislature, chaired by Representative Linda Campbell, a Methuen Democrat, and Senator Michael Rush, Democrat of West Roxbury, issued its own report into one of the nation’s deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks in a long-term care facility.
The 181-page document is the result of eight public hearings in which more than 30 people — many of whom are or were involved in running the home — testified. Pearlstein and Sudders were among those who spoke to the committee; however, the governor was not called to testify. Ureña — who was asked by Sudders to resign — gave legislators a written statement defending his performance.
Deaths escalated rapidly starting in late March 2020 at the home, where many workers were calling in sick. There was also a fateful decision by leadership that had combined some seemingly healthy and COVID-positive veterans together. Amid a tangle of finger-pointing, no would take responsibility for that decision, though Walsh acknowledged being informed of it.
The centerpiece of the committee’s document is 14 findings, with recommendations, for how to improve the home’s operations, including elevating the veterans secretary post to a Cabinet position that reports directly to the governor, and having the home accept Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement and comply with those agencies’ standards.
However, like the Pearlstein report, the legislative report does not address Baker’s role in the original appointment of Superintendent Walsh, who was depicted in the report as bringing “toxic leadership” to the home. It refers to Baker and Sudders knowing about Walsh’s deficiencies, but said simply the problems were not fully addressed.
It said the “leadership deficiencies of Superintendent Walsh, though known by the governor, Secretary Sudders, and Secretary Ureña, were not adequately dealt with by the Baker administration.”
Representative Campbell said the committee will vote Tuesday on the report. She said she expects discussion on whether to consider calling Baker to testify, especially in light of revelations in the Spotlight report.
She said she believes the committee’s report calls out the culpability of many top officials.
“We point out right at the beginning that there were multiple points of failure, failure of personal leadership, accountability and responsibility at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, at HHS [Health and Human Services], and at the governor’s office,” Campbell said.
While the Spotlight report found key omissions and mistakes in Pearlstein’s work, the legislative report did not criticize it. It said the Pearlstein report “generated more questions than answers,” in part because it said Pearlstein had a more narrow focus.
Baker spokeswoman Sarah Finlaw did not respond when asked if Baker would agree to appear before the Legislature. She re-sent a statement issued last week saying in part that the conclusions in the Pearlstein Report were consistent with findings of Attorney General Maura Healey, who has brought criminal charges against Walsh and the home’s former medical director, Dr. David Clinton.
When Baker was asked about the Spotlight report at an event last Friday, the governor called the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home deaths “a terrible tragedy.”
“That’s the reason why we hired a former US attorney to do a thorough investigation.”
He also asserted that he gave Pearlstein wide latitude to decide the scope of the investigation.
Several lawmakers said they want to know how Pearlstein, whose report is considered the administration’s official record of what happened at the home in March 2020, could have made so many significant mistakes.
“While we have many unanswered questions, what is abundantly clear to me is that transparency and accountability in government are absolutely necessary,” said State Senator Rebecca Rausch, Democrat of Needham. “I have grave concerns about allegations that the Pearlstein report, commissioned by the governor, contains errors and omissions that provided cover for the governor. The families who lost their loved ones deserve honestly and truth and the governor should give it to them.”
The report, for example, said then-state representative John Velis had “reached out” to Bennett Walsh to urge him to apply for the superintendent’s job in early 2016. Velis said he didn’t even know who Walsh was at the time and never initiated the meeting.
Pearlstein also suggested that Ureña was lax in his oversight of Walsh. Pearlstein stated that Ureña was so aware of Walsh’s failings that he sent Walsh to an anger-management coach. But it was Sudders, not Ureña, who sent Walsh to the coach, Ureña told the Globe.
Ureña also said that when he brought concerns about Walsh’s job performance to an aide to the governor, he was told there was nothing the administration could do because Walsh came from a politically powerful family in Western Massachusetts. That aide has denied that claim.
Senator Eric Lesser, Democrat of Longmeadow, said he also thinks Governor Baker should address the Legislature.
“Given the gaps in the Pearlstein report and some serious deviations, I think it’s a necessity to have him [Baker] come before us. Your story documented multiple examples,” said Lesser, who pointed out that Baker did appear before a special committee investigating the failure of the COVID vaccine rollout.
Ben Downing, a former Democratic state senator who is now running for governor, said the Republican governor’s administration’s decisions left veterans abandoned and vulnerable.
“The governor must address the discrepancies between the Pearlstein report and the [Globe] story to make sure we are clear about the facts that led to the tragedies at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and are operating under the most unambiguous and clear accounting of the record,” he said.
Representative Shawn Dooley, a Republican from Norfolk, said he is thankful that the story revealed that Ureña was blamed in the Pearlstein report for things he didn’t do.
“We had all known he was scapegoated solely to protect Sudders,” he said. “What is most horrific is that they tried to smear an honorable man, a Marine who did nothing but give 24/7 to helping veterans. Politics is one thing. This is beyond the pale.”