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In aftermath of indictments, Holyoke Soldiers' Home trustees to hold special meeting

By STEPHANIE BARRY | MassLive.com | Published: September 29, 2020

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HOLYOKE, Mass. — The chairman of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Board of Trustees said recent criminal indictments of top staff in connection with the deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the facility will not change the complexion of an upcoming special meeting of the trustees.

The meeting is scheduled for Sept. 30. Board of Trustees Chairman Kevin Jourdain said previously a discussion of the employment status of suspended Superintendent Bennett Walsh will take place in executive session, away from public eyes and ears.

On Tuesday Jourdain said the criminal indictments leveled against Walsh and former Soldiers' Home Medical Director Dr. David Clinton will not change the substance of that discussion.

“I’m aware of the issue. We’re reviewing the law. But it won’t change the complexion of the meeting,” said Jourdain, a former Holyoke City Council president appointed chairman of the board in November.

The public agenda for the meeting also shows trustee Cesar Lopez recently resigned from the board — the second trustee to resign in three months. Board member Richard Girard, director of Veterans Services for the Town of Agawam, resigned in July.

Lopez did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday afternoon.

During a brief phone conversation Tuesday, Girard said, “I’d rather not talk about that. I’ve had a hard time dealing with this; it’s been very trying for me."

Walsh and Clinton were indicted on 10 criminal charges each by a statewide grand jury on Sept. 24. State Attorney General Maura Healey announced the charges the following morning.

The men are accused of multiple counts of being caretakers who wantonly or recklessly commit or permit bodily injury to an elder or disabled person, and a similarly worded charge pertaining to the alleged “abuse, neglect or mistreatment” of an elderly or disabled person.

Both are felony charges that carry hefty state prison time which could amount to decades behind bars if either man is convicted, Healey said. An attorney for Walsh has said her client is being scapegoated by Healey’s office. A lawyer for Clinton did not respond to requests for comment.

Walsh was initially suspended on March 30 as the coronavirus death toll at the long-term care facility for veterans began to climb. At least 76 veterans succumbed to the disease. Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders fired Walsh on June 24 with Gov. Charlie Baker’s blessing.

Walsh successfully challenged his firing in court and was placed back on suspended status. Clinton resigned on June 24, the same day a stinging report was released by an independent investigator assigning blame to Walsh and his top staff for allegedly worsening the spread of the virus.

On Wednesday’s meeting public meeting agenda are proposed votes on appointing new Chief Medical Officer Dr. Thomas Higgins, new medical staff and reappointing a podiatrist, plus the item scheduled for executive session on the litigation between the board and Walsh.

“To discuss strategy with respect to litigation because an open meeting may have a detrimental effect on the litigating position of the Board,” the notation on the agenda reads.

After he was suspended, Walsh sued the board to delay a discussion of his employment status until after the report by Boston attorney Mark Pearlstein was released. Walsh then sued the Sudders and Baker, arguing they lacked the authority to fire him— and only the trustees had that power. A Hampden Superior Court judge sided with Walsh, handing his professional fate back to the trustees.

Jourdain has declined to forecast the decision by the board. Along with Jourdain, current trustees include newest member Brig. Gen. Sean T. Collins, of Southwick, a clinical nurse specialist, small business owner and former commander of the 104th Fighter Wing Medical Group in Westfield. Collins was once appointed to serve at the Pentagon in a defense and health capacity.

Other trustees are Cindy Lacoste, a retired U.S. Naval officer of Westfield; Isaac Mass, a Greenfield attorney and member of the Army National Guard; Carmen M. Ostrander, a veteran from Pittsfield; and Chris Dupont, of Belchertown, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps and serves as a civilian civil engineering job with the Air Force Reserve’s 439th Airlift Wing in Chicopee.

Jourdain said although Dupont’s term expired, he is on “overstay,” until Baker chooses to reappoint or replace him. All the trustees are Baker appointees and are drawn from the state’s four western counties — with more than half hailing from Hampden County.

Baker was asked about the indictments at a press conference Tuesday on the state’s coronavirus outbreak and response. “The Pearlstein report raised, time and time again, errors and mistakes that had huge consequences for the people — horrible, huge consequences — for the people who live there," the governor said. "And you spend enough time talking to a lot of the families who were involved in that, and it becomes clear just how huge and horrible those consequences really were.”

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