Sen. John Velis: I had no involvement in hiring of Holyoke Soldiers’ Home superintendent

Hampden County

CHICOPEE, Mass. (WWLP) – An investigation into the Covid-19 outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home uncovered the former superintendent of the facility, Bennett Walsh, was encouraged to apply for the job by a then-state representative from western Massachusetts.

Westfield Democrat John Velis, who won a special election in May, is now a state senator. He spoke with 22News Wednesday evening after hearing about the findings in the Soldiers’ Home report.

Velis told 22News that he had no involvement in the hiring of Bennet Walsh and clarified that he and Walsh met for the first time over coffee which was recommended by one of his constituents.

Senator Velis: It’s not a decision that I participate in, obviously, I’m not on the board of trustees. Obviously I’m not in the administration. It was an introductory meeting where we talked about all things in the military and then we talked about the superintendent’s job. My response was ‘hey if this is a job that you want to apply for, apply for the job.’

Reporter: So did you say anything to the board of trustees recommending him?

Senator Velis: No. It was that meeting where we had that conversation and it was if you want to apply for this job, go apply for this job, and then again and I think this is critical. We talked about that he brought it up to his credit that lack of that medical background where I expressed to him. I don’t think it’s a prerequisite just based on the fact that the two outgoing, the superintendent and the deputy did not have one. However, the superintendent doesn’t have one. I think it’s critical that the deputy does have one.

Velis told 22News says no investigators reached out to him for comment. The Baker administration appointed Attorney Mark Pearlstein to conduct an independent investigation into the Covid outbreak at the veterans’ facility.

The report revealed errors and failures by the home’s leadership including Superintendent Walsh by the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services which likely contributed to the death toll during the outbreak. Governor Baker called for an independent and thorough investigation at the home in efforts to get to the bottom of what happened and take immediate action.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo in a statement to 22News said he was shocked and disturbed by the findings of the independent investigation. You can read the house speaker’s full statement below:

I am shocked and disturbed by the findings of the Independent Investigation Conducted for the Governor into the COVID-19 Outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. This report lays bare that mismanagement and ineptitude, both administratively and clinically, on multiple levels is to blame for the deaths of at least 76 of our heroes and the illness of 84 more heroes as well as 80 staff members. All of these deaths sadden me beyond words, but the deaths of our beloved and cherished Veterans leaves me, quite frankly, sickened. And when I think that many of these veterans survived horrific experiences on the field of battle only to die where they should have felt—and should have been–safe, enrages me. As both a citizen of this Commonwealth and as the Speaker of the Massachusetts House, I extend my deepest sympathies to these American heroes and their families whose sacrifices we will never forget.  

“Representative Linda Dean Campbell, the House Chair of the Joint Committee on Veterans Affairs, has been closely monitoring, and patiently awaiting the completion of, the Independent Investigation conducted for the Governor. Now that this report has been completed, I am going to recommend to the full House that next week we adopt Chairwoman Campbell’s proposal to form a Special Legislative Oversight Committee to conduct its own investigation of the COVID19 Outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. 

“The Independent Investigation Conducted for the Governor answers some of the basic questions as to how this tragedy occurred. Before we begin to consider any legislative solutions the Governor may propose, however, we need the answers to many more questions, starting with why this tragedy was able to occur. The Special Legislative Committee recommended by Chairwoman Campbell will get those answers.”

The report also states Walsh was not qualified to manage a long-term care facility and his shortcomings were notified to the Department of Veterans Services, however, the agency failed to effectively oversee the home during his tenure.

Massachusetts House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo

“As a veteran the most difficult part of this report to accept was that most of these deaths were preventable and that many of these veterans died in a horrific manner,” Representative Linda Dean Campbell, House Chair of the Joint Committee on Veterans Affairs also stated. “We in the Legislature have an important role to play to ensure that this tragedy never happens again, and more broadly, to ensure that our veterans receive excellent care by any and all standards.”

You can find the 174-page report on the investigation at the Soldiers’ Home here.

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