The Massachusetts House’s top Democrat on Tuesday rejected calls for Governor Charlie Baker to answer questions before lawmakers about his responsibility for the crisis at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, saying he sees no need for more testimony on the scandal.
“We just finished an in-depth hearing,” Speaker Ronald Mariano told the Globe Tuesday, referring to a special legislative committee’s investigation and report on the COVID-19 outbreak at the Western Massachusetts facility, where more than 76 veterans died last year. “I don’t think there’s any need for us to do another hearing, to go over and regurgitate the same facts. I think our report stands for itself.”
On Monday, several lawmakers said Baker should appear before the Legislature in light of a Boston Globe Spotlight Team report on Sunday that described the behind-the-scenes roles of the Republican governor and his Health and Human Services secretary, Marylou Sudders, in the crisis at the state-run facility.
The report revealed that former Soldiers’ Home superintendent Bennett Walsh was an unqualified, 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 and focused blame on others below them. Pearlstein has said he stands by his report.
The special joint committee, chaired by Representative Linda Campbell, a Methuen Democrat, and Senator Michael Rush, Democrat of West Roxbury, released a 181-page report on Monday after holding eight public hearings at which more than 30 people testified. Pearlstein and Sudders were among those who spoke to the committee but Baker was not called to testify.
Mariano, a Quincy Democrat, said the legislative committee’s findings “are very similar to what was in the Pearlstein report and what was in [the Globe’s] story.”
However, unlike the Spotlight report, the legislative and Pearlstein reports did not explore the role that Baker had in appointing Walsh. Neither reviewed the management role played by Sudders. And the legislative report did not criticize the thoroughness or accuracy of Pearlstein’s report.
Mariano said he could not say how he views Baker’s responsibility for the crisis.
“It’s hard for me to say. It depends on what reports you read. There are gradations of responsibility in each report,” he said. “I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s really not my call.
“We did our due diligence; we had the Senate and the House spend an awful lot of time” investigating, he said. “None of the findings are radically different in any of the three reports. There’s different starting points and different ending points.”
Mariano’s comments could blunt calls for Baker to address the findings before lawmakers publicly. Senator James Eldridge, an Acton Democrat and Senate chairman of the judiciary committee, said Baker “needs to take responsibility for the tragedy that happened at the Soldiers’ Home.” Senator Eric P. Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, called it a “necessity to have him [Baker] come before us.”
Senate President Karen E. Spilka has not said whether Baker should come before the Legislature.
Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office has brought criminal charges against Walsh and the home’s former medical director, Dr. David Clinton, said in a radio interview on Tuesday that Baker’s past comments appear to be “at odds” with the Globe’s report, which she called “disturbing.”
“I think people need to answer for that. Families who lost loved ones, as well as the public, deserve answers,” Healey said on Boston Public Radio, adding of Baker and Sudders: “I think they’re going to have to answer for that — about their involvement, about their decisions.”
Mariano, who served on Baker’s COVID-19 vaccine advisory committee, said the Legislature intends to debate a bill that would restructure the management of the state’s two soldiers’ homes, though he said it was too early to provide details.
The special legislative’s committee’s report centers on 14 findings, with recommendations 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 reimbursements and comply with those agencies’ standards.
The report also called for any new superintendent to be a licensed nursing home administrator and called out Sudders for failing to endorse that as a requirement.
“My commitment is to a bill that would have a direct impact on the governance” of the homes, Mariano said. “I think it might be time to take a fresh look in light of what happened there.”
Separately, Baker on Tuesday signed a bill to finance construction of a new $400 million Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, but in doing so vetoed a requirement that it be built using collective bargaining, effectively ensuring that all project employees are union members working under the same rules.
In a letter to lawmakers, Baker argued that using a so-called project labor agreement would raise costs and “disproportionately” limit minority- and female-owned businesses from bidding, because it makes it “impractical for any non-union member to participate.”
“This is not the type of public construction environment that the Commonwealth strives to achieve,” Baker wrote.
Lawmakers could quickly move to override Baker’s veto. The bill had passed both chambers unanimously and had included a Senate provision that the project be overseen by a new committee to ensure it involves women and minority-owned firms.
Andrea Estes and Rebecca Ostriker of the Globe staff contributed to this report.