Soldiers’ Home trustees barred from meeting to discuss superintendent’s firing 

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

  • The Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. Photographed on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/13/2020 11:34:25 AM

HOLYOKE — A Hampden Superior Court judge has temporarily blocked the Soldiers’ Home board of trustees from meeting to consider firing the facility’s superintendent over his handling of a coronavirus outbreak that has led to at least 32 deaths since March 25.

A lawyer for Superintendent Bennett Walsh, who the state has placed on paid leave, on Friday filed a complaint seeking to halt the board of trustees from meeting in executive session on Saturday to consider Walsh’s termination. In response, Judge Francis Flannery issued a temporary restraining order to stop the meeting from taking place. A telephone hearing on the matter is now set for April 16.

On March 30, the state suspended Walsh and instituted a “clinical command structure” to run the Soldiers’ Home as news of the deadly outbreak became public. So far, 38 veteran residents have died since March 25, 32 of whom have tested positive for COVID-19. Another 88 veterans have tested positive for the virus, as have 78 employees.

The complaint for injunctive relief argued that Walsh would not have been able to meaningfully participate in the hearing, given that the state had barred him from contacting any Soldiers’ Home staff and had locked him out of his email account. 

Walsh's lawyer also argued that the board had not provided clear ground rules for the hearing, that Walsh is self-quarantining at home after he was presumed positive for COVID-19 and that his public participation in the hearing would endanger his wife, who is currently undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. 

Walsh’s lawyer is William Bennett, the former Hampden district attorney. Bennett is Walsh’s uncle. Walsh was sworn in to the superintendent job by Gov. Charlie Baker in July 2016. He earned a salary of $122,299 in 2019.

“No exigency exists and the decision to push forward the hearing in an expedited manner appears to be for the sole purpose of denying Mr. Walsh the ability to properly defend himself and to quell the public’s opinions regarding the happenings at the Soldiers’ Home during the Emergency, using Mr. Walsh as a scapegoat without due process,” the complaint reads.

Last week, Walsh released a statement through Bennett, accusing state officials of letting the “lie” persist that they didn’t know what was going on in the facility. He said that he had kept officials at the Department of Veteran Services, Executive Office of Health and Human Services and the Department of Public Health apprised of the crisis as it unfolded.

Walsh’s court filings also reveal some of his own defense, as well as the case the state intends to make against him.

In the complaint, Walsh’s attorney says that the prohibition on speaking to witnesses affects Walsh's ability to defend himself, “as the majority of the decisions for which the Commonwealth takes issue were in the direct supervision and control of the medical director of the facility, not Mr. Walsh himself.”

“Not only should the medical director and Mr. Walsh be permitted to speak to one another, but the medical director should also be afforded the opportunity to participate and retain counsel to protect his interests,” the complaint reads.

Included in Walsh’s court filings was an email that Daniel Tsai, the deputy secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, sent to board of trustees chairman Kevin Jourdain on April 9. In the message, Tsai laid out the statements he said that he and Lisa Colombo, the incident commander at the Soldiers’ Home, planned to make at the April 11 board meeting.

Tsai said that his own statement would relate to the management skills needed to move the Soldiers’ Home through the current crisis. 

“The Commonwealth respectfully suggests that Bennett Walsh is not the leader that can achieve these important objectives and asks the Board to terminate his employment as Superintendent,” Tsai wrote in the letter.

Tsai said that Colombo planned to speak about the situation on the ground during her two weeks as incident commander. That statement, Tsai said, would include observations about alleged missteps made during Walsh's tenure: a “lack of adherence to infection control protocols, including the cohorting of infected residents with non-infected residents, the misuse of personal protective equipment, the failure to close public spaces or to enforce physical distancing, and the lapses in appropriate infection control practice evidenced in housekeeping and facility operations staff.”

“Dr. Colombo’s statement will also address the lack of adequate record keeping, including the inaccurate and incomplete centralized record of the Soldiers’ Home's admission, discharges, and transfers, and the failure to appropriately refer to patient advance directives,” Tsai’s email reads. “Dr. Colombo will also discuss the mismanagement of staffing needs, the lack of effective staffing contingencies, and the absence of appropriate direction given to staff on site.”

Bennett, Walsh’s lawyer, argued that the board had sent mixed messages about how its hearing on Saturday would have proceeded. Bennett noted that such executive sessions do not permit the calling of witnesses or assistance of counsel, but that Tsai informed the board that the state planned to present a statement from Colombo. 

“The Board and the Commonwealth have unfairly restricted Mr. Walsh’s ability to defend himself and meaningfully participate in the hearing, which will result in extreme and unnecessary prejudice to Mr. Walsh,” the complaint reads. 

Walsh’s complaint continues: “Allowing the Board to proceed with the hearing, the Commonwealth to request termination, and requiring Mr. Walsh to appear under these circumstances is a blatant violation of due process and effectively eviscerates Mr. Walsh of his ability to meaningfully participate in the hearing and present a defense.”

A hearing on the temporary restraining order will take place by phone on April 16. The board of trustees meeting has been rescheduled for Tuesday. No agenda has yet been provided for that meeting.

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