Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Downing on Monday slammed Gov. Charlie Baker for his management of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home leading up to last year's deadly COVID-19 outbreak, saying the governor should testify before lawmakers about revelations in a new Boston Globe Spotlight report.
Days after the Globe reported that Baker was more involved than he previously indicated in selecting former Superintendent Bennett Walsh to lead the facility, Downing slammed the incumbent Republican and said his administration's decisions left veterans "abandoned" and "vulnerable."
"The veterans at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home were abandoned long before COVID," said Downing, a former state senator running for governor in 2022. "They were abandoned by a political culture within the Baker administration that consistently cared more about doling out jobs to politically powerful friends than ensuring our veterans, their families and their caregivers have the support they deserve."
U.S. Attorney Mark Pearlstein, whom Baker tapped to examine the outbreak that killed at least 76 veterans, concluded that the home's leadership made significant missteps and that the Baker administration failed to oversee Walsh despite being aware of his lack of qualifications.
In the wake of Pearlstein's report, Secretary of Veterans' Services Francisco Urena resigned, which he told the Globe he did at the request of Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, and the administration moved to fire Walsh.
The Globe reported Thursday that Pearlstein's report was "marred by key errors and omissions that helped shield Baker and Sudders from blame."
"Governor Baker left the veterans at Holyoke vulnerable when he hired Bennett Walsh," Downing said. "Governor Baker left them vulnerable when he gave Walsh marching orders on budgets that didn't meet the needs of the facility and ignored calls from the former Superintendent to make necessary capital improvements. Governor Baker left them vulnerable when top officials in his administration looked the other way as red flag after red flag was raised about Walsh's leadership and conditions on the ground."
Baker originally said he first met Walsh, who was hired despite holding no health care management experience, when he swore in the U.S. Marine. The Globe found, and the administration confirmed to the paper, that Baker had in fact interviewed Walsh before appointing him to the position.
Downing called for the Pearlstein interview with Baker to be made public and for the governor to testify before the Legislature "to address gaps between the Pearlstein Report and recent media accounts."
In a statement to the News Service on Monday, Baker spokesperson Sarah Finlaw said "questioning the integrity of the Pearlstein report is completely unfounded" and that politics "played no role" in Walsh's hiring.
"There are currently several ongoing state and federal investigations, and to date questioning the integrity of the Pearlstein report is completely unfounded," Finlaw said.
"As this report outlines in great detail, Bennett Walsh was hired at the recommendation of the Board of Trustees, and at the end of March under his leadership, senior medical staff at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home made decisions that caused a horrific and inexplicably chaotic environment that resulted in the tragic death of our veterans. Politics played no role in his hiring. The Baker-Polito Administration has taken accountability for this gut-wrenching tragedy and immediately implemented new leadership and filed legislative reforms to improve the safety of the Home for all residents, staff and families."
Baker has not indicated if he will seek a third term in 2022, but if he does, the Holyoke tragedy likely is to emerge as a contentious campaign issue.
Finlaw said Pearlstein's findings are "consistent" with Attorney General Maura Healey's pursuit of criminal charges against Walsh and David Clinton, the Holyoke home's former medical director.
Healey did not produce a written report the same way Pearlstein did, but announced charges against Walsh and Clinton last year with a news release and news conference. Both men have pleaded not guilty.
Several other agencies, including the Office of the Inspector General and the U.S. Attorney's Office, also have ongoing investigations into the Holyoke home.
Asked about The Globe report Friday, Baker said that the outbreak "was a terrible tragedy and it's on us" while maintaining that Pearlstein had "100 percent latitude" to investigate as he sought fit.
Pearlstein himself told lawmakers in March that the administration did not impose any constraints on his probe. But, he said his team "did not have the luxury of time to do a comprehensive history of the soldiers' home" and other long-standing issues.
The Legislature convened a special committee to investigate the deadly outbreak. That panel, led by Rep. Linda Dean Campbell and Sen. Michael Rush, has held eight public hearings focused on a range of issues, including firsthand experiences of workers and family members, the facility's board and long-term care best practices.
Sudders testified before the panel in January, where she faced questions about staffing deficiencies and the value of hiring a licensed nursing administrator to run the Holyoke home.
The committee's current status is unclear. Its leaders said in April they would seek an extension to their original deadline of March 31 to file a report and legislative recommendations, but they have not announced any update or scheduled an additional hearing in more than a month.
Members planned an April 13 hearing focused on leadership, communications and chain of command issues at the facility, but canceled it after saying that Department of Veterans' Services Chief of Staff Paul Moran withdrew his participation.
Lawmakers to date have not acted on Baker's legislative proposals regarding management of the Holyoke home.