Baker’s firing of Walsh voided for now

Decision is embarrassing for the governor

FORMER HOLYOKE Soldiers Home superintendent Bennett Walsh insisted Gov. Charlie Baker didn’t have the power to fire him, and it turns out he was right.

Hampden County Superior Court Judge John Ferrara ruled on Monday that only the board of the Holyoke Soldiers Home can remove Walsh from his position. As a result of the decision, Walsh’s June 24 termination by Baker is voided and he is restored to the superintendent’s position. The decision was first reported by Western Mass Politics & Insight.

Baker dismissed Walsh on the same day a scathing report was issued on what caused the deaths of 76 veterans at the facility. The report blamed a series of baffling decisions by staff at the Holyoke facility, including the decision to combine two locked dementia care units housing 40 residents –some with COVID-19 and most not – into a single room with a capacity of 25 people.

Walsh may not last very long back in his old job. He had argued that he is entitled to a hearing before the board to rebut the charges against him, but Ferrara’s ruling said no hearing is required. The next meeting of the board is October 13.

The legal fight over Walsh’s dismissal is embarrassing for the governor in a legal sense, and also in a buck-stops-here sense.

According to Ferrara’s decision, the governor’s letter appointing Walsh to his position in 2016 cited authority under a law that applies to the Chelsea Soldiers Home, not the Holyoke home. And the letter terminating Walsh in June cited the same law. (Walsh was placed on leave March 30.)

Ferrara said the board of the Holyoke Soldiers Home recruited three candidates for the position of superintendent and referred them to Baker for his review. The judge said Baker picked Walsh, who two years later would become a central figure in the investigation by attorney Mark Pearlstein into what transpired at the Holyoke facility.

Pearlstein, who wrote his report at the behest of Baker, said his investigation revealed failures relating to the appointment and oversight of Walsh by the Baker administration’s Department of Veterans’ Services.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“While the Home’s leadership team bears principal responsibility for the events described in this report, Mr. Walsh was not qualified to manage a long-term care facility, and his shortcomings were well known to the Department of Veterans’ Services — yet the agency failed to effectively oversee the Home during his tenure,” the Pearlstein report said.

Ferrara said the board of the Holyoke Soldiers Home properly carried out its duties in appointing Walsh. “His appointment through the board was valid. His termination without board input was not,” Ferrara wrote.