Governor Maura Healey’s new administration fired the embattled boss of the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home on Thursday amid mounting criticism of mismanagement and substandard conditions at the facility.
Eric Johnson’s termination came a day after the Globe reported on large overtime payments to the home’s director of nursing, and a week after the state’s top watchdog, Inspector General Jeffrey Shapiro, sent a scathing letter about conditions at the home to the administration of former governor Charlie Baker.
“Governor Healey and her administration remain committed to protecting the health, safety, and well-being of our veterans,” Karissa Hand, a spokesperson for Healey, said Thursday. Johnson’s employment at the Chelsea home “was terminated effective today,” she added.
Robert Engell, the assistant secretary of Veterans’ Homes and Housing, will serve as acting superintendent of the home, Hand said.
Secretary of Veterans’ Services Cheryl Poppe hired Johnson to run the home, which provides shelter and medical care for military veterans, in December 2020. His tenure, after taking over in the midst of the pandemic, was tumultuous.
Johnson was named as a defendant last year in a federal whistle-blower lawsuit filed by two former officials at the home. Then, in June, he was placed on paid administrative leave for months amid several state investigations of the home and allegations against him. (The state has declined to publicly discuss the allegations.)
In September, union members at the home signed a letter of no confidence in Johnson and accused him of bullying, harassment, and mismanagement.
And in October, Poppe, a Baker appointee who remains secretary of Veterans’ Services under Healey, reinstated Johnson as the home’s leader over the protests of staff.
Union officials representing workers at the Chelsea home praised Healey for ousting Johnson. “Eric Johnson’s firing is long overdue,” said Joe Markman, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Nurses Association.
On Wednesday, the Globe reported that the nursing director, Shereda Grossett, earned more than $87,000 in overtime and “other pay,” last year, bringing her total compensation to more than $217,000 and making her one of the highest-paid managers in the state, according to payroll records. Johnson had a hand in approving overtime for Grossett, who was known as one of Johnson’s allies, three staffers said.
A week earlier, Shapiro’s letter had also flagged the apparent overtime issue, citing a state report that found that it was “more likely than not” that Johnson and Grossett had violated overtime and telework policies.
A lawyer for Grossett said her client “denies breaking any rules in connection with her work for the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home.” Johnson did not respond to requests for comment.
The revelation of the overtime payments added to a wider picture of disorder at the home.
In his letter, sent to Baker’s Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, Shapiro described a “catastrophic failure” of the home’s leadership and quoted from state reports that described filthy residential rooms containing feces and dead rodents.
The letter also described a toxic work culture in which at least one worker had a “reasonable” belief that managers had “targeted [him] for retaliation.”
On Thursday, Shapiro said, “Clearly, Governor Healey recognized the urgency of the situation at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home.”
Scandals at the state’s two soldiers’ homes may come to be seen as a dark mark on the legacy of Baker, who was broadly viewed as a successful and competent governor. At the Holyoke home, 84 veterans died in COVID outbreaks early in the pandemic.
A Globe Spotlight investigation revealed that the home’s politically connected superintendent, Bennett Walsh, had no health care experience before taking over leadership of the home and that the Baker administration knew of serious problems with Walsh’s leadership long before the pandemic.
Although the Chelsea home has received less scrutiny, problems have long festered there, as well, according to the inspector general’s letter and interviews with staffers at the Chelsea home who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Chris Cook, president of SEIU/NAGE Local 282, a union representing administrative workers at the Chelsea home, welcomed the Healey administration’s firing of Johnson.
“Unlike the previous administration, which ignored complaints about the superintendent at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home until tragedy occurred, the Healey administration took decisive action,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services referred questions to the governor’s office.
In March, various reforms are scheduled to take effect to address problems at the soldiers’ homes. One of those reforms will elevate the secretary of Veterans’ Services to a Cabinet-level position.
Senator John Velis, who represents a portion of Western Massachusetts, including Holyoke, said he is convening a working group to examine the homes — another feature of the reform legislation, which passed into law last year.
“I want to do a deep dive into Chelsea to make sure everything is where it needs to be,” he said.
“What’s paramount for all of us,” he added, “is the well-being of our veterans.”
Mike Damiano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.