In a sharply critical letter Tuesday, the state’s top watchdog lambasted the management of a troubled veterans’ home in Chelsea and accused the Baker administration of failing to intervene despite knowing of the home’s problems.
Citing records provided by the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services, the letter described veterans being found “soaked in urine and sitting in feces” and a toxic work environment in which at least one worker had a “reasonable” belief that managers had “targeted [him] for retaliation.”
Jeffrey S. Shapiro, the state’s inspector general, addressed the letter to Marylou Sudders, the outgoing health and human services secretary, and accused her personally of mishandling the home. “[D]espite your knowledge of the significant ongoing issues at the home, your administration has not yet implemented changes to protect the veterans,” Shapiro wrote.
Sudders and department spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
A spokesperson for Governor Charlie Baker did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The letter, which also sharply criticizes the home’s superintendent, Eric Johnson, follows months of turmoil at the facility.
In June, the state placed Johnson on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of multiple investigations into his leadership, according to a letter signed by unionized workers at the home. Weeks later, the home’s chief operating officer was also placed on leave pending an investigation, according to a WCVB report.
In September, the Department of Veterans Services said Johnson would return to his leadership role at the home the following month, which angered the union.
“We vehemently oppose his return to this campus,” union members wrote in a letter of no confidence in Johnson addressed to Sudders and the state’s secretary of veterans’ services, Cheryl Lussier Poppe. The union letter added that members had experienced or witnessed instances of bullying, sexual harassment, and intimidation by Johnson.
A spokesperson for the Department of Veterans’ Services declined to comment or make Poppe or Johnson available for interviews.
The letter written by Shapiro, the inspector general, was based on a review of records, including materials from investigations conducted by the Office of Health and Human Services and the Department of Veterans’ Services as well as documents related to “dozens of complaints” sent to the state about the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home and its management.
One of those records was an August 2022 report written by “a senior member of [Sudders’] leadership team,” which said that at least a dozen rooms at the home were in “terrible” condition and contained feces, dead rodents, dirt, and bugs, according to the letter.
“These conditions point to a catastrophic failure of the Home’s leadership,” the letter said.
The records also described a toxic work environment, according to the letter. An investigative report, also from August, found that one employee had a “reasonable” fear that he was “being targeted for retaliation,” according to the letter.
Separately, the senior member of Sudders’ staff wrote that Johnson imposed “inappropriate discipline” on his staff and was not “forthright in his account of events and issues,” according to the letter.
The senior staff member concluded that Johnson “lacks candor, professionalism, judgment and does not seem to possess leadership skills,” according to the letter.
The home has also experienced at least two large COVID outbreaks. An outbreak last April infected 14 veterans. Early in the pandemic, before Johnson was superintendent, at least 31 residents died of COVID.
Shapiro wrote that the issues reported in Chelsea echoed those of the state’s other soldiers’ home, in Holyoke. There, 76 veterans died of COVID in the spring of 2020, prompting investigations into the home’s leadership. A Globe Spotlight investigation last year documented the ways that the politically connected superintendent of that home remained in his position despite numerous warning signs.
In September of 2020, then-Attorney General Maura Healey secured indictments against the former superintendent of the Holyoke home, Bennett Walsh, and the home’s former medical director, Dr. David Clinton. They were each charged with elder neglect and permitting bodily injury involving five veterans. But a lower court judge later tossed out the charges. On Wednesday, state lawyers asked Massachusetts’ highest court to restore the charges.
Sudders has faced criticism for not acting faster to remove Walsh from his position of leadership in Holyoke.
Shapiro also suggested in an interview Wednesday that Sudders’ office had dragged its feet before producing the investigative records about the Chelsea home. HHS took more than two months to provide the records after receiving the inspector general’s request in mid-October. “I would suggest that is a long time,” Shapiro said.
He added that one reason he sent the letter was to ensure that officials in the outgoing Baker administration notify their counterparts in the incoming Maura Healey administration of the issues at the Chelsea home.
“During this time of transition,” Shapiro’s letter to Sudders said, “you must provide a complete, transparent briefing to your successor.”
The information needs to be relayed to new leaders, Shapiro said, “so that they understand that on day 1 there are important actions that need to be taken.”
Mike Damiano can be reached at email@example.com.