“We believe this is the first criminal case in the country brought against those involved in nursing homes during the covid-19 pandemic,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said. “We are alleging that Walsh and Clinton were ultimately responsible for a decision on March 27th that led to tragic and deadly results.”
In particular, Healey said, the consolidation of two dementia units put patients who had tested positive for the coronavirus “within feet” of others who had not. One unit that typically had 25 residents was packed with 42, including nine whose beds were in a dining room, she said.
“To think about this now, knowing how contagious and deadly this virus is and continues to be, is most disturbing, and the alleged details are even worse,” Healey said.
The indictment comes six months after Healey launched a criminal investigation and includes multiple counts of two neglect charges: a caretaker who wantonly or recklessly commits or permits bodily injury to an elder or disabled person, and “abuse, neglect or mistreatment” of an elderly or disabled person.
In a statement, Walsh’s legal team accused Healey of trying to scapegoat Walsh, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who had been appointed to the position in 2016 by Gov. Charlie Baker (R-Mass.).
“It is unfortunate that the Attorney General is blaming the effects of a deadly virus that our state and federal governments have not been able to stop on Bennett Walsh,” the statement said. “Mr. Walsh has spent his entire life in the service of our country, first in active duty in the Marine Corps for 24 years and then serving other veterans as the Superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers Home.”
Walsh, like other nursing home administrators, could not prevent the spread of the virus to the veterans home and relied on medical professionals to do what was best for the residents “in a home with veterans in close quarters, severe staffing shortages and the lack of outside help from state officials,” the statement said.
A lawyer for Clinton could not immediately be reached.
The pandemic reached the home in March, although that information was withheld from the public for days as veterans began dying. Walsh was removed as superintendent March 30, after state officials said they first became aware of the outbreak. Eight people had died at the home within the previous five days.
Walsh has disputed that he withheld information from the Baker administration, releasing text messages and emails in May through one of his lawyers, William Bennett, that showed Walsh communicating with superiors about a possible outbreak at the home. Bennett asked state officials for help from the Massachusetts National Guard on March 27, the day of the consolidation that Healey cited in announcing charges Friday.
In June, Baker’s office released an independent investigation of the crisis that placed “principal responsibility” for the catastrophe on the home’s leadership team in Holyoke. But it also stated that Walsh was not qualified to manage a long-term-care facility, that state officials in the Department of Veterans’ Services knew it and that the department nonetheless “failed to effectively oversee the Home during his tenure despite a statutory responsibility to do so.”
Francisco Urena, the Massachusetts secretary of veterans’ services, resigned just before those findings were released.
It is unclear whether other people could still face discipline or charges.
Roberta Twining, whose husband, Timothy, is a resident, said that Healey had discussed the case with them before her announcement. When the subject of possible criminal charges for others came up, Healey said she was not at liberty to discuss the issue, Twining said.
“I think they are pursuing the situation, which is a start,” Twining said.
But Brian Corridan, a former trustee at the home, expressed disgust with Healey’s decision. The state government had a long history of disregarding the home’s needs, he said.
“I’m quite angered and outraged at the whole thing,” he said. “I think this is a terrible abuse of her office. I think it’s a terrible abuse of power.”