Former Soldiers’ Home officials arraigned on criminal neglect charges

  • Former Soldiers’ Home superintendent Bennett Walsh, center left, and former medical director David Clinton, center right, are arraigned remotely in Hampden Superior Court, Thursday, on criminal neglect charges related to their roles during a COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke facility earlier in the year. Both pleaded not guilty and were released without bail or conditions placed upon them. SCREENSHOT

  • An ambulance arrives at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 17, 2020

SPRINGFIELD — Two former officials at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke have pleaded not guilty to criminal neglect charges that the state has brought against them in connection with their roles during a widespread coronavirus outbreak at the facility earlier this year.

Former Soldiers’ Home superintendent Bennett Walsh, 50, and former medical director David Clinton, 71, were arraigned in Hampden Superior Court on Thursday. Both were released without bail or conditions placed upon them, and are due back in court on March 22 for a pre-trial conference.

Walsh and Clinton led the Soldiers’ Home this spring, when a COVID-19 outbreak swept through the state-run facility, eventually contributing to the deaths of at least 76 veteran residents and infecting at least 84 employees. An independent investigation commissioned by Gov. Charlie Baker found that the home’s leadership made “substantial errors” in dealing with the outbreak.

Both men eventually resigned, and on Sept. 25 state Attorney General Maura Healey announced that a grand jury had handed up indictments against them. Healey said her office believes the charges against Clinton and Walsh are the first criminal case in the country brought against nursing home officials during the pandemic.

Walsh and Clinton each face five counts of two separate charges: “Caretaker Who Wantonly or Recklessly Commits or Permits Bodily Injury to an Elder or Disabled Person,” and “Caretaker Who Wantonly or Recklessly Commits or Permits Abuse, Neglect, or Mistreatment to an Elder or Disabled Person.”

The bodily harm charge carries a sentence of up to 10 years in state prison, and the other charge carries a sentence of up to three years in prison.

After the charges were announced, Walsh attorneys Tracy Miner and William Bennett said in a statement that Healey was blaming Walsh for the effects of a deadly virus that neither state nor federal governments have been able to stop.

“He, like other nursing home administrators throughout the Commonwealth and nation, could not prevent the virus from coming to the home or stop its spread once it arrived there,” the statement said. “At all times, Mr. Walsh relied on the medical professionals to do what was best for the veterans given the tragic circumstances of a virus in a home with veterans in close quarters, severe staffing shortages, and the lack of outside help from state officials.”

Clinton’s lawyers, James Lawson and John Lawler, did not immediately respond to request for comment Thursday morning.

Much of the discussion at Thursday’s arraignment concerned conditions that the state sought to place on the defendants’ release.

Prosecutors had asked that the defendants not work at any long-term care facility, stay away from the families of victims and from witnesses, check in monthly with a probation officer and notify probation if they intended to leave the state.

Walsh’s attorney Michael Jennings, however, challenged those conditions, saying that sanctioning Walsh with those conditions would create a perception of guilt. He noted that prosecutors said that they had no worry about Walsh showing up to his court dates.

“Nobody feels worse about this, other than the families, than Mr. Walsh does,” Jennings said.

Hampden Superior Court Judge Edward McDonough presided over the arraignment and ultimately agreed not to place pretrial conditions on the defendants.

New trustees

On Wednesday, Baker announced the appointment of three new Soldiers’ Home trustees: Maj. Gen. Gary Keefe, who is currently adjunct general for the Massachusetts National Guard, and Lt. Col. Mark Bigda, a Southampton physician who currently serves in the Massachusetts Air National Guard as a flight surgeon and has served as the facility physician at the Hampshire County House of Correction for 28 years.

Keefe will serve a full seven-year term, replacing former trustee Christopher Dupont, whose term ended in July. Bigda will serve until July 2022 as a replacement for former trustee Cesar Lopez, who resigned in September.

In July, Baker appointed Brig. Gen. Sean T. Collins to the board of trustees. A nurse practitioner, Collins is the Air National Guard assistant to the deputy surgeon general. Collins will serve until July 2024 as a replacement for former trustee Richard Girard, who resigned in June.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.