The state inspector general on Friday sharply criticized the hiring of former Holyoke Soldiers’ Home superintendent Bennett Walsh, saying there were problems with his running of the facility well before a deadly COVID-19 outbreak ravaged it in March 2020 and killed 76 veterans.
Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha painted a portrait of a temperamental and disengaged administrator who berated employees, retaliated against staffers he felt were disloyal, and was often away during working hours without any way for his staff to contact him.
Walsh “became visibly angry with employees, yelled at them and stated publicly that he wanted to ‘hit’ and ‘belt’ one particular employee; he also said that he wanted to hurt a veteran who had spoken out against him. He would tell staff that they were ‘dead’ to him,” Cunha said in his report. “He interpreted staff comments and concerns as disloyalty or personal attacks on him.”
An attorney for Walsh did not respond to a request for comment.
The office’s investigation concentrated on Walsh’s tenure before the onset of the pandemic, including the circumstances that led to his hiring in 2016. Cunha concluded that Governor Charlie Baker, state Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, and the home’s board of trustees failed to follow the law that outlined how the Holyoke superintendent should be hired, Cunha added in an accompanying statement.
He said trustees had recommended three candidates for the position, but Sudders met only with Walsh, and Baker appointed him as the home’s superintendent.
In a statement, the Baker administration said it is reviewing Cunha’s report, but noted that it had commissioned its own investigation of the Holyoke COVID-19 outbreak that determined Walsh and his senior medical staff were responsible for “failures” at the facility. It also noted it had already addressed several of the issues outlined in the report, and had filed legislation to strengthen oversight of the Soldiers’ Home nearly two years ago.
Baker had initially distanced himself from the hiring of Walsh, telling reporters in June 2020, “I can tell you that the first time I ever met him or talked to him was when we swore him in.”
But the Globe Spotlight team reported last year that 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, who had political connections.
The inspector general said he had begun looking into Walsh’s tenure before the pandemic, launching an investigation in 2019 after receiving “an anonymous complaint raising several concerns” about his management.
The investigation also identified “critical shortcomings in the management of the Home as well as concerns regarding the supervision of” Walsh, Cunha’s statement said. Health and human service officials in the Baker administration, as well as veterans service workers, “failed to adequately address serious complaints by senior managers and others at the Home,” according to the IG.
Investigators also determined that two separate reviews of Walsh by the Executive Office of Health and Human Services were “flawed, unnecessarily restricted in scope and biased” in his favor.
The devastation at the home was one of the early traumas as the pandemic swept through the region.
After the outbreak, state Attorney General Maura Healey brought criminal charges against Walsh and the former medical director, alleging they put elderly residents at risk by combining sick and healthy residents with dementia in the same unit because of a staffing shortage.
A judge dismissed the charges in November, but Healey, a Democratic candidate for governor, has appealed. The appeal remains pending.
Caitlin Clark, a former nurse at the home, said the IG’s report validates what she knew from working there six-and-a-half years.
“I’m happy that came out. It just backs up everything the workers have been saying all along,” said Clark, 32, who left her job at the home in February. “I just hope that maybe down the road or something they will be held accountable for what they’ve done.”
“My heart is there,” Clark said. “Our veterans deserve better.”
Laurie Mandeville Beaudette’s father, Jim Mandeville, lived 16 years at the home before his death from COVID-19 in 2020.
“I don’t understand how the state made such an error in judgment,” said Beaudette.
“We all knew when he came in that he was not qualified,” said Beaudette, who lives in Springfield. “But I’ll tell you, when you hear there were three candidates and Sudders didn’t look at all three ... that was one piece of the pie I didn’t know, and that infuriated me.”
She had an assessment of that: “Political cronyism at its worst.”
Friday’s report followed earlier findings from a separate outside report on the COVID-19 outbreak at the home commissioned by the Baker administration.
That report, released in June 2020 and prepared by former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein, found leaders at the home made “utterly baffling” mistakes. Separately, a 2021 review by the Spotlight Team of Baker’s arrangement with Pearlstein raised questions about the independence of Pearlstein’s report.
Even though Walsh, a former Marine, had never run a comparable facility, one trustee felt during the hiring process that he “was considered a top candidate by the administration and that the administration had predetermined the decision to appoint Mr. Walsh,” Cunha said in his report.
In addition to his outbursts against employees, Cunha said, Walsh was “absent from the Home frequently throughout his tenure,” prioritizing his outside activities while staffing issues, including vacancies among key positions, were neglected.
Yet, despite “numerous” complaints lodged against Walsh, Cunha’s report said, state officials failed to “respond appropriately,” often treating “each new complaint as if it were the first. They did not investigate the complaints adequately or evaluate them holistically to identify patterns of the superintendent’s behavior.”