Suspended Soldiers’ Home chief Bennett Walsh resigns

  • STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE/CHRIS VAN BUSKIRK STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE/CHRIS VAN BUSKIRK

Staff Writer
Published: 10/2/2020 3:45:04 PM

HOLYOKE — The superintendent of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke has resigned six months after he was placed on leave amid a COVID-19 outbreak that eventually became one of the deadliest in the country.

Bennett Walsh submitted his resignation to the Soldiers’ Home board of trustees effective Friday, according to board chairman Kevin Jourdain. In the resignation letter, shared by Jourdain, Walsh calls his time serving as superintendent as a “tremendous honor.”

“I very much appreciated the opportunity to serve my fellow veterans and I strived every day to do my best for them and their families,” Walsh said in his letter, dated Oct. 1. “Recent events, however, make it impossible for me to continue to serve.”

Following the discovery of the outbreak in late March, the state placed Walsh, of West Springfield, on leave and set up a clinical command structure at the facility in an effort to contain the outbreak. At least 76 veteran residents of the home died from the coronavirus, and last week state Attorney General Maura Healey announced that a grand jury had indicted Walsh and former medical director Dr. David Clinton, of South Hadley, on criminal neglect charges in connection with their roles at the home during the outbreak.

The board of trustees had previously attempted to meet to discuss Walsh’s employment, but Walsh sued and a Hampden Superior Court judge barred the board from discussing his employment until the lawsuit was resolved.

In the wake of the outbreak, Gov. Charlie Baker — who appointed Walsh — hired former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein to conduct an investigation. That report, released in June, found that leadership made “substantial errors” in dealing with the outbreak. Baker attempted to fire Walsh after the investigation was completed, but the Hampden Superior Court judge ruled that the home’s trustees had the power to fire Walsh, not Baker’s administration.

The board of trustees met on Wednesday in a closed session to discuss Walsh’s employment, and were scheduled to hold a special meeting on Oct. 5 “to discuss the discipline or dismissal of, or complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, employee, staff member or individual.” That meeting has now been canceled, Jourdain said in a statement.

“The board of trustees will seek a candidate who is highly qualified and able to lead the facility to its full potential to provide our veterans with the outstanding care they so richly deserve,” Jourdain said.

In a letter accompanying Walsh’s resignation, his attorney, uncle and former Hampden district attorney William Bennett said that the recent criminal charges against Walsh and Clinton would make a hearing in front of the board “unreasonable.”

“The board needs to focus on their important work with confidence in a new superintendent and Bennett Walsh needs to focus all his effort and attention on clearing his good name,” Bennett wrote.

The criminal neglect and bodily harm charges against Walsh and Clinton stem in large part from the March 27 decision to combine two dementia units at the Soldiers’ Home — a choice that the state-commissioned independent investigation released in June described as a “catastrophe” and “the opposite of infection control.”

Walsh’s attorney, however, has long maintained that Baker and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders have scapegoated Walsh for the outbreak of the highly contagious coronavirus,. He has said Walsh acted in good faith to deal with the outbreak despite a lack of help from the state.

The news of Walsh’s resignation came on the same day that the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition — a group filled with local veteran advocates and family members of residents who died at the facility — announced the creation of an online tribute to the victims of the outbreak.

Laurie Beaudette, whose 83-year-old father James Mandeville died of COVID-19 at the Soldiers’ Home in April, is one of the members of the organization. She said on Friday that the news of Walsh’s resignation was not much of a surprise for her, but that the constant developments in the saga have been hard for families of those impacted.

“They’re putting us through so much trauma,” she said.

Beaudette, of Springfield, said she and other families are more focused on the legal case against Walsh and Clinton, as well as the investigations that federal prosecutors, the state inspector general and state lawmakers are still conducting.

Cory Bombredi, an organizer with SEIU Local 888 — one of the unions representing staffers at the home — said that he hopes Walsh’s resignation brings some closure to employees, veterans, and their families.

“I’m glad he finally decided to walk away,” Bombredi said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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