The embattled head of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home said in a letter released Friday that he will step down, amid efforts to fire him and a week after he was criminally charged for his role in the deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the state-run facility.
Bennett Walsh, 50, who was the home’s superintendent since 2016, submitted a letter of resignation to the organization as its board of trustees has been holding meetings behind closed doors to consider his termination. The board met Wednesday and was planning another meeting Monday to review his role in an outbreak that killed at least 76 people. Investigators have said that Walsh’s decision to consolidate units in the facility led to “horrific circumstances” that allowed the virus to easily spread.
In his letter, Walsh, who has been on leave since March, called his work for the veterans’ home “a tremendous honor.”
“I very much appreciated the opportunity to serve my fellow veterans and I strived every day to do my best for them and their families. Recent events, however, make it impossible for me to continue to serve,” he said in the letter.
Kevin Jourdain, trustees’ chairman, released a separate statement acknowledging Walsh’s letter of resignation, and announcing that the personnel meeting scheduled for Monday had been canceled.
“The board of trustees looks forward to a thoughtful and robust search process to fill this critical leadership position,” Jourdain said. “The board of trustees will seek a candidate who is highly qualified and able to lead the facility to its full potential to provide our veterans with the outstanding care they so richly deserve.”
“There is much work ahead of us,” the statement said.
According to court records, Walsh also agreed to dismiss a state lawsuit that initially challenged the board’s attempts in the spring to hold a hearing over his employment status without giving him time to prepare. The lawsuit was later amended to challenge Governor Charlie Baker’s firing of Walsh. A state judge subsequently ruled that only the board of trustees could fire Walsh, and the board recently initiated personnel proceedings.
One of Walsh’s lawyers, William M. Bennett, said in a letter to the board Friday that “recent events, most specifically the indictment of Superintendent Walsh … make a hearing before the board unreasonable.”
“The board needs to focus on their important work with confidence in a new superintendent and Bennett Walsh needs to focus all his effort and attention on clearing his good name,” Bennett said in the letter to the board. The letter also provides a point-by-point breakdown of Walsh’s handling of the COVID outbreak, what Bennett called “an effort to defend Bennett Walsh’s reputation and the actions he took to prevent the veterans on March 27.”
Last week, state authorities charged Walsh and Dr. David Clinton — once the top medical director — with 10 criminal counts related to the outbreak. The indictment centers on their decision, because of staffing shortages, to combine dementia units at the home as the virus had already begun to spread, putting veterans who had no symptoms of the virus in contact with those who were sick.
As the number of deaths at the facility grew, Walsh was placed on leave in late March and the state sent in an emergency response team. An independent state review in June led to the resignation of Clinton. Franciso Ureña, secretary of the state’s Department of Veterans’ Services, resigned ahead of the report’s release.
Cory Bombredi, the union organizer for the veterans’ home, said Friday that staffers welcomed Walsh’s official resignation, saying that it was the staffers themselves who had raised many of the concerns about the management of the pandemic. The SEIU Local 888 organizer questioned whether Walsh would be receiving any compensation package as a result of his decision to resign, noting that many of the staffers have lost their sick time, and many of them were sickened by the virus. But at least, he said, Friday’s decision was welcome.
“I think this will help our members, and the veterans and the veterans’ family members start moving on and healing,” he said. “I think they’ll feel relieved in the moment, knowing it’s officially over, that they don’t have to have Bennett back in the building.”