Judge raps Baker administration, calls Soldiers’ Home chief’s firing invalid

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

Staff Writer
Published: 9/22/2020 7:49:12 PM

HOLYOKE — A judge ruled Tuesday that the Baker administration’s firing of Soldiers’ Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh in June, following a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the home, was invalid.

Hampden Superior Court Judge John Ferrara determined that state law names the Soldiers’ Home board of trustees as the appointing authority for the home, not the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker. For that reason, Ferrara said, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders should not have fired Walsh on June 24, the same day a state-commissioned investigation into the outbreak was released.

However, Ferrara also ruled that Walsh is not entitled to a hearing from the Soldiers’ Home trustees, who do have the power to remove him. The board next meets on Oct. 13.

Walsh was put on paid leave after the novel coronavirus began to spread inside the Soldiers’ Home in late March, eventually resulting in the deaths of at least 76 veteran residents of the facility.

Shortly before the board of trustees planned to take up the issue of Walsh’s employment at an April 11 meeting, Walsh sued and Ferrara issued an injunction against the board, barring it from discussing the matter.

After the administration attempted to fire Walsh on June 24, Walsh submitted a revised complaint asking for that effort to be blocked as well.

Walsh’s fate now rests in the hands of the board of trustees, which Ferrara said does not need “just cause” to terminate Walsh, given that he was a member of management at the facility.

“In this matter, had the Governor recommended the Board terminate Walsh, there is no reason to believe that the Board would not have complied,” the ruling reads. “The Board, and not the Secretary, was the proper vehicle through which the Governor could have exercised any authority to terminate the Superintendent.”

Executive Office of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Brooke Karanovich declined to answer questions about the ruling, what happens next or whether Walsh will be given back pay. Karanovich said only that the Baker administration is reviewing the court’s decision.

Walsh’s attorney, William Bennett, said in a statement that he felt Walsh had been “vilified ” by Baker and Sudders since the outbreak began.

“I hope that this decision will allow people to consider that perhaps that criticism is unfair and that the actual story of what happened has not yet been understood,” Bennett said.

He said he believes COVID-19 spread rapidly in the Soldiers’ Home despite the “good faith efforts of the staff” and that any investigation of the outbreak should focus on science.

Baker commissioned former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein to investigate the outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home. Pearlstein’s report found “substantial errors” that likely contributed to the death toll at the facility.

The report also found that Walsh “was not qualified to manage a long-term care facility,” and that high-ranking Baker administration officials failed to act decisively when informed of the developing crisis.

The investigation also identified errors at the state level, noting that the Soldiers’ Home “substantially complied with reporting requirements established by state leaders” to notify the state about positive COVID-19 tests and the deaths of those who tested positive, but not about those who died and were still awaiting test results.

In the wake of the outbreak, veterans and their supporters in western Massachusetts have been pressing the state to build a new facility that advocates have long said was necessary for the region.

In a press release Tuesday, the group known as the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition said it had met with the architectural design firm Payette that has been tasked with implementing the first phase of what the state says is an expedited capital project for the Soldiers’ Home.

The coalition said its members presented 16 recommendations to Payette, including:

■that the state build a new facility that can accommodate the current maximum capacity for long-term care rooms at the home, plus a 120-room addition; and

■that it create an outdoor environment that would allow for an adult day health care program.

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


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