Governor Charlie Baker acknowledged Friday that he interviewed Bennett Walsh for a half-hour before he appointed Walsh to lead the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, publicly reversing himself after saying last year he had never met the now-disgraced superintendent before swearing him in.
“I forgot,” Baker said of the meeting with Walsh in 2016.
The details add another layer to what the Boston Globe Spotlight Team found was an often misleading narrative surrounding the crisis at the Soldiers’ Home, where a COVID-19 outbreak killed 76 veterans last spring in one of the highest death tolls of any senior-care center in the country.
The report revealed that Walsh was an unqualified, politically connected hire by Baker; it also showed that Marylou Sudders, Baker’s health and human services secretary, 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.
Last June, when his administration released Pearlstein’s findings, Baker had distanced himself from the decision to hire Walsh, who now faces charges of criminal neglect, saying the facility’s board “really wanted Bennett Walsh to have that job.” (The governor named three of the trustees who oversaw the search, including the board chair.)
“And I can tell you,” Baker said at that June news conference, “that the first time I ever met him or talked to him was when we swore him in.”
But a Sudders spokesperson later confirmed that Baker had met with Walsh, according to the Spotlight report. Asked to explain the discrepancy Friday, Baker said he forgot, and described his interview with Walsh as “brief.”
“I think it was about a 30-minute conversation,” Baker said at an unrelated State House news conference.
Meanwhile, Baker’s office released a document Friday that shows Pearlstein had a legal obligation to his client — the governor’s office — when he accepted the appointment to conduct the probe into the Holyoke tragedy.
Baker’s office released to the Globe a copy of the “terms of engagement” letter that was signed between Baker and Pearlstein, who works at the firm McDermott Will & Emery. Baker previously had declined the Globe’s request for this document but agreed this week when asked again by the Globe.
The letter, dated April 1, 2020, showed that Pearlstein had fairly wide latitude for “an investigation of the events that led to the deaths of veterans in the Soldier’s Home, and the management and organizational oversight of the Covid-19 response in the Soldier’s Home.” But it also included language showing Pearlstein had a lawyer-client relationship with the “Office of the Governor” and a duty to represent its interests.
“We will represent you zealously and act on your behalf to the best of our ability,” said the letter signed by Pearlstein and the governor’s chief legal counsel, Robert Ross.
Neither Baker nor Sudders has fully addressed their roles with the now-disgraced Walsh. Asked repeatedly Friday if he had concerns about the omissions and errors the Globe identified in Pearlstein’s report, Baker deflected the question and said the findings from the former prosecutor’s investigation were “very similar” to those released this week by a special legislative committee.
“I think the vast majority of the Pearlstein findings were completely consistent with the other independent reports that were done,” Baker said.
Baker didn’t directly answer when asked whether he would testify before lawmakers on the tragedy. Instead, the governor said he expects to talk with the Legislature “in the weeks ahead” about how to enact many of the recommendations included in both the legislative committee and Pearlstein reports to reshape governance of the facility.
The Legislature’s report, for example, recommended elevating the veterans’ secretary post to a Cabinet position that reports directly to the governor and called for any new superintendent to be a licensed nursing home administrator. Walsh was not.
“They’re critical reforms, they’re important reforms, and I’m anxious to work with the Legislature to get ‘em done,” Baker said broadly of the recommendations.
Several state lawmakers have urged Baker to appear before the Legislature to answer new questions about his own personal responsibility and his administration’s role in the crisis in the wake of the Globe report.
But House Speaker Ronald Mariano said Tuesday he saw no need to hold another hearing examining the facility’s failures, and it’s unclear if Baker will testify when the Legislature begins public debate over the bill overhauling oversight of the state’s soldiers’ homes.
Senate President Karen E. Spilka said in a statement earlier this week that she is “disturbed by the inconsistencies between the Globe Spotlight reporting and the Pearlstein report,” and that she expects Baker and officials in his administration to be “forthcoming on the legitimate questions that are being asked.”
A Senate spokeswoman added: “We expect to ask Governor Baker and/or members of his Administration to testify when the bill is heard.”
Several lawmakers have told the Globe 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.
Pearlstein, for example, suggested that Francisco Ureña, the former state secretary of veterans’ aervices, 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.
The report also implies that Ureña failed to act on a request from Walsh for staffing help from the National Guard on a day in March 2020, when 39 people across two shifts had called out sick as the outbreak swept through the building. Pearlstein’s report mentions Walsh’s request to Ureña, but drops the subject there, and never examines what happened next — Ureña quickly alerting superiors in Sudders’ agency, the Globe found.
Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @mattpstout. Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rebecca Ostriker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her @GlobeOstriker.