Holyoke Soldiers’ Home superintendent’s fall from grace
By STEPHANIE BARRY | masslive.com | Published: June 28, 2020
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(Tribune News Service) -- At Bennett Walsh’s swearing-in as the new superintendent of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke in 2016, state Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders called him a “great choice.”
Commending his robust record as a combat veteran for the U.S. Marine Corps and ties to Western Massachusetts, Sudders publicly applauded his appointment as the top administrator at the venerated long-term care facility, which maintained a long waiting list and for years took “connections” to gain entry.
“He’s obviously military, he’s from Western Massachusetts, he has tremendous regard for our veterans, and he’s already made his mark there,” Sudders said during a ceremony at the Statehouse in Boston.
This week, a searing report issued four years later in the wake of the COVID-19 catastrophe at the Soldiers’ Home reveals state officials came to regard Walsh as something of a lightweight for a long-term care facility leader, who needed support from a more seasoned deputy with a health care background. Like other superintendents before him, Walsh had no experience in health care.
In the report, Sudders’ final assessment of Walsh as a leader differed vastly from her first. “Just fire him. I’ll deal with any fallout,” she bluntly wrote in an email to another state official on March 30, the day Walsh was placed on paid administrative leave.
Sudders told investigators she felt “lied to” by the superintendent about the number of coronavirus cases at the Soldier’s Home.
The 174-page report by attorney Mark Pearlstein, issued Wednesday and prompting Walsh’s firing by Sudders and Gov. Charlie Baker, is a study in contradictions in terms of Walsh’s merit for the position to which the two had appointed him in 2016. It mostly demonizes the once-celebrated combat veteran based on interviews with staff, state officials and other stakeholders.
One faction portrays Walsh as a “bully,” who favored “free lunches” and cut key staff out of critical meetings if they were out of favor. They claim he used petty tactics to alienate employees such as greeting a select few in a room while pointedly ignoring others.
“With respect to Mr. Walsh’s leadership style, our interviews with staff members echoed common themes of fear about retaliation and lack of communication. As one staff member put it, ‘Walsh could run us as troops but not as people,’” wrote Pearlstein, a Boston attorney and former federal prosecutor. Baker commissioned the investigation on April 1, two days after Walsh had been placed on paid leave.
The report also notes that Walsh was ordered to undergo anger management counseling after run-ins with staff.
Former deputy superintendent John Crotty told investigators Walsh played “psychological warfare” to wear people down and cared not for being contradicted.
“Don’t disagree with him with others present, or you will pay a dear price,” said Crotty, who left the post in June 2019, adding Walsh told him that he -- Crotty -- would be “the inside guy” while Walsh would serve as the “outside guy” to raise the facility’s profile and advance it politically.
After Crotty opted to leave, it left the facility with no “inside guy,” and his position remains vacant, a situation which was among the missteps outlined in the Pearlstein report.
Meanwhile, others told investigators Walsh was “passionate about veterans,” visited on the home on weekends and knew each resident by name. Soldiers’ Home attorney Mark Yankopoulos called Walsh “an excellent leader and capable executive.” But, the laudatory comments were few and far between in the report.
Walsh himself told Pearlstein he loves the veterans and his job there never even felt like work.
In addition to Walsh’s firing, state Department of Veterans’ Services secretary Francisco Urena and his general counsel, Stuart Ivimey, were forced to resign. The Soldiers’ Home’s medical director, Dr. David Clinton, resigned, as did chief nursing officer Vanessa Lauziere.
Through his attorney and uncle, former Hampden District Attorney William M. Bennett, Walsh declined to be interviewed for this story. On Wednesday after the report was issued, Bennett said, “We dispute many of the statements and conclusions in the report, to which we were never given the opportunity to rebut prior to publication. We are also disappointed that the report contains many baseless accusations that are immaterial to the issues under consideration. We are reviewing the report and will have more to say in the days ahead.” He said legal action against the state is being considered as Baker’s firing “denies Mr. Walsh the opportunity for a fair and public hearing.”
Over 11 weeks beginning on March 21, 76 veterans died of the virus, which Pearlstein noted is a particular menace in long-term care facilities. He concluded the outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home was exacerbated by poor leadership, a lack of compassion and “utterly baffling” decisions by Walsh and his top staff.
The report calls the decision made by Lauziere (and green-lighted by Walsh over the telephone) to combine two units of dementia patients a “catastrophic” one.
Pearlstein collected haunting accounts from staff and state officials dispatched to manage the crisis, including one from a social worker who said she felt certain she was pushing veterans in wheelchairs to their certain deaths.
“It felt it was like moving the concentration camp -- we (were) moving these unknowing veterans off to die,” one social worker recounted, according to the report.
When the state sent in a response team in addition to the National Guard (which Walsh had previously requested several days earlier) to attempt to stabilize the Soldiers’ Home on March 30, a veteran nurse said the facility was in total disarray in terms of shoddy record-keeping and other problems.
“In my 35 years as a nurse, it was the biggest cluster... I’ve ever seen,” said Lisa Colombo, executive vice chancellor of Commonwealth Medicine.
A Springfield native and 1992 graduate of Providence College, Walsh was regarded by many as a political hire. His father, Daniel Walsh, a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, was the retired director of veterans’ affairs for the city of Springfield. His mother, Kateri Walsh, is a Springfield city councilor, and his uncle, William Bennett, had been an influential district attorney for 20 years.
Daniel J. Smith, a former trustee at the Soldiers’ Home who was acting chairman and part of the seven-member panel who hired Walsh, said not a single person lobbied him to pick Walsh over any other candidate. Smith also said he believes Walsh is being scapegoated in a time of crisis.
“I think they’re using him as a whipping boy,” Smith said during a previous interview, referring to state officials. “Because let me tell you, he believes in chain-of-command. And, he always crossed his t’s and dotted his i’s. In my opinion, someone in Boston dropped the ball, not Bennett Walsh.”
The report shows that Walsh, 50, a father of four, concluded a 24-year distinguished military career in 2016, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. It was a career that included combat tours in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
While in the process of applying for a security job at the yet-to-be-built MGM Springfield casino, the superintendent’s job came up after former lead administrator Paul Barabani retired that year over frustrations with the state, funding and staffing.
How Walsh got a line on the job is in dispute. The report says Walsh told investigators then-state Rep. and now-state Sen. John Velis, of Westfield, alerted him to the job. Velis disputes this. He said he had never met Walsh until a constituent invited him to meet for coffee. Velis recalls meeting with the constituent, Kateri Walsh and Bennett Walsh at a Friendly’s restaurant in Westfield.
An assertion in the report that Velis dismissed Walsh’s lack of clinical or health care experience also is misconstrued, according to the senator. “I simply said that the last two top administrators did not have clinical experience either, so it didn’t appear to me that it was a mandatory requirement,” Velis says. “I walked away from that meeting being impressed with Bennett’s military career and thinking he was a really, really nice guy.”
The newly elected senator said he was dismayed that the narrative in the Pearlstein report was memorialized without his having ever been contacted by investigators.
“Had they given me the courtesy of a phone call, and I obviously would have participated, that could have been easily cleared up,” said Velis, a U.S. Army Reserves captain who now represents the 2nd Hampden and Hampshire district, which includes his hometown of Westfield as well as the city of Holyoke.
Velis says he sees the rise and spectacular fall of Walsh, for whom he once had immense respect, as a regrettable outcome of the COVID-19 crisis.
“That report was just devastating. And given the bombshells included in it, there needs to be a top-down shake-up,” he said. Velis is now working with a coalition of veterans groups, family members of residents at the home, including some who lost their loved ones, and supporters to advocate for the state to renovate and expand the home.
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