1. Bennett Walsh was a politically connected hire by Governor Charlie Baker that went disastrously wrong. Following the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home tragedy, Baker has repeatedly downplayed his own role in the appointment.
The son of a politically influential Springfield family, Bennett Walsh had no health care experience before Baker appointed him Holyoke Soldiers’ Home superintendent in 2016. After a COVID-19 outbreak that killed 76 veterans at the home last spring, Walsh faces criminal neglect charges, and Baker has repeatedly deflected responsibility for his decision to hire Walsh. The case sheds light on the potentially serious consequences of unqualified patronage hires.
In June 2020, upon the release of a report investigating the tragedy, the governor said of Walsh, “I can tell you that the first time I ever met him or talked to him was when we swore him in.” That wasn’t true: Baker interviewed Walsh for about a half-hour three weeks before naming him superintendent. Baker finally acknowledged that meeting, reversing himself publicly, at a news conference 11 months later. “I forgot,” Baker said of the interview with Walsh.
Baker also misleadingly suggested last June that Walsh was “appointed by the board” of trustees of the Soldiers’ Home. At his May 28 press conference, Baker again distanced himself from the hire, stating, “The board at Holyoke, which had the legal authority to do so, chose him.”
In fact, Baker wielded considerable influence over Walsh’s selection, a Boston Globe Spotlight investigation found. When the superintendent job opened up, amid a backdrop of debate over who had ultimate hiring and firing power, Baker sent trustees a letter, saying both the superintendent and the trustees “serve under the governor,” and asking them to recommend appropriate candidates to him. After they did so, the governor made the final call to hire Walsh.
According to Holyoke Soldiers’ Home legal counsel Mark Yankopoulos, records indicate that the Holyoke board “did not function in the capacity of making a final selection in this process, but deferred to the governor.”
The Baker administration even acknowledged this in court: “[T]he Board unanimously voted ... to recommend to the Governor that the top three candidates be considered for the position of superintendent,” wrote Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, as part of a 2020 legal case related to Baker’s attempt to fire Walsh.
In that lawsuit, the administration’s legal team stated it simply: “Charles F. Baker, the Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts … appointed the Plaintiff to that position.”
2. Baker’s health secretary, Marylou Sudders, was directly involved in addressing serious problems with Walsh long before the pandemic. Yet Walsh was protected from repercussions until it was too late.
Baker indicated at a press conference last June that he and Secretary Sudders knew little about Walsh’s shortcomings before the pandemic. But that wasn’t true.
Walsh was unfit for his job, according to numerous current and former Holyoke employees and other officials. His lack of management skills and anger problems became well-known among staff, and an exodus of managers took place during his tenure.
Sudders sent Walsh to weekly anger-management sessions with a psychologist, according to former Veterans’ Services secretary Francisco Ureña. Sudders also told Walsh to spend more time at the home, as he was often away for promotional activities, Ureña said. Multiple employees spoke with Sudders’ team about problems with Walsh, and she discussed staffing problems with union representatives.
Ureña regularly reported concerns about Walsh to Sudders. But the Veterans’ Services secretary said he felt largely powerless to oversee Walsh because Sudders and her team had taken over Walsh’s supervision -- and Ureña had no power to fire him.
Ureña said that in 2018, he turned to a top Baker aide for help, but was told nothing could be done because Walsh came from a politically powerful family and Baker’s team wanted to make sure the Walshes and their allies didn’t support Baker’s opponent in the gubernatorial election. The Baker aide has denied that claim.
3. An investigation of the Holyoke crisis commissioned by Baker blamed several lower-level officials for failures of leadership and oversight, leading to their resignations. But the Spotlight Team found that report was marred by key errors and omissions that helped shield Baker and Sudders from blame.
Baker retained Mark Pearlstein, a partner at the firm McDermott Will & Emery and a former federal prosecutor, to conduct the investigation, and he said Pearlstein “had complete autonomy.” Pearlstein’s team worked pro bono, and he told the Globe, “Our work truly was independent.”
But Pearlstein’s 174-page report found fault solely with Soldiers’ Home staff and lower-ranking officials, including Walsh and Ureña. Baker and Sudders faced no criticism.
Pearlstein’s report stated that Walsh “was unqualified to lead the Soldiers Home.” Yet Pearlstein did not examine how family and political ties may have influenced Baker’s decision to appoint Walsh. Pearlstein told the Globe that details of the hiring process were “beyond what we defined as being the scope of our work.”
Pearlstein’s report stated that Walsh’s “shortcomings were well known” to Ureña and blamed Ureña for failures of oversight. But Pearlstein ignored Sudders’ own direct involvement in supervising Walsh, after problems with him became evident. Pearlstein’s report even incorrectly stated that Ureña sent Walsh to the anger-management coach, when it was Sudders who did so, Ureña said.
The report also did not examine what happened to Walsh’s request for help from the National Guard during a staffing crisis. Without that help, the home’s leaders made a catastrophic decision to merge two dementia units, combining COVID-positive and asymptomatic veterans. Pearlstein’s report incorrectly implied Ureña failed to act on the National Guard request. Pearlstein neglected to examine the involvement of two Sudders deputies who received the request from Ureña -- a stark omission on a matter with the potential to save many lives.
A closer look at Baker’s and Pearlstein’s arrangement also raised questions about whether the investigation was truly independent. The legal contract between the Office of the Governor and Pearlstein’s law firm created an explicit “attorney-client relationship,” which could be used to keep their communications and other materials private and suggested Pearlstein was working for Baker, not the public.
4. Since the Pearlstein and Spotlight reports were released, a special joint committee of the Legislature issued its own report on the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home crisis, with recommendations for leadership and oversight of the home. It faulted Baker and Sudders for failing to address Walsh’s “toxic leadership” but did not probe why Baker hired Walsh in the first place.
The joint legislative committee began investigating the crisis last year, with the goal of addressing systemic issues at the Soldiers’ Home and preventing such tragedies. Chaired by Representative Linda Campbell and Senator Michael Rush, the committee issued its report on May 24, after eight public hearings in which more than 30 people testified, including Pearlstein and Sudders. Baker was not called to speak.
The 181-page report described superintendent Walsh as bringing “toxic leadership” to the home, but -- like the Pearlstein report -- it did not examine how political connections may have influenced Baker’s appointment of Walsh. The report also 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.”
Unlike the Spotlight report, the legislative report found no fault with the Pearlstein report, saying merely that it “generated more questions than answers.”
5. Baker faces growing calls from lawmakers and others to answer questions about his responsibility for the Holyoke tragedy, and his administration’s role in it.
To date, Baker and Sudders have taken no personal responsibility for any role in the vast loss of life at a facility they oversaw. Instead, they have laid blame solely on officials below them. Baker has referred to “our administration” taking responsibility, or used the phrase “that one’s on us,” though in context that meant his administration’s Department of Veterans’ Services, led by Ureña.
Several state legislators, including Senate President Karen E. Spilka, have called on Baker to give a fuller account of his role. Senator Diana DiZoglio called for a Senate oversight hearing, with sworn testimony from Baker and his administration, into potential wrongdoing related to the crisis.
Meanwhile Veterans Assisting Veterans, a Massachusetts nonprofit, issued a statement calling Ureña “a scapegoat for the protection of the Baker administration” and urging Baker to apologize publicly to Ureña. The National Association of Government Employees, which represents some staff at the Holyoke home, launched an ad campaign against Baker, attacking him for appointing an “incompetent” politically connected superintendent and saying, “it’s time [Baker] took responsibility.”