A local veterans group is seeking a public apology from Gov. Charlie Baker for firing former state Veterans Services Director Francisco Urena in the wake of the deaths of 76 elderly veterans from COVID-19 at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home last spring.
Veterans Assisting Veterans, a Merrimack Valley-based nonprofit, said that a recent report by the Boston Globe “vindicates ... Urena regarding his role at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.”
According to a statement from the veterans’ group, the article showed that the Lawrence native “was used as a scapegoat for the protection of the Baker administration. As a result, his resignation caused severe damage to his reputation and livelihood.”
Urena said Tuesday he was unable to comment because of pending civil litigation against him resulting from the tragedy at the nursing home.
The newspaper article mimics some of the findings of a joint Senate-House committee co-chaired by Methuen state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell. The legislative committee interviewed more than 30 people involved at the home over the course of eight public hearings, in preparation for a 181-page report released last week.
The report, Campbell said, “clearly indicates that information was presented” to Baker and Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders but that the information was “not acted upon.”
“The qualifications of Bennett Walsh were clearly questioned, officially, and documented,” she said. “I think his job performance was clearly identified as being toxic. These points were clearly brought to the attention of the secretary.”
Based on information contained in the Globe article, the veterans’ group said “the deaths of veterans at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home are tragic and could have been avoided had the governor favored professionalism and skills in his choice to oversee the facility rather than political patronage and nepotism.”
In addition to seeking an apology, some are calling for Baker himself to testify.
State Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, in a June 1 letter to Senate President Karen Spilka, raised several questions around the “Pearlstein Report,” the investigation commissioned by the governor and spearheaded by attorney Mark Pearlstein. The report, released last summer, was critical of Walsh for mishandling the outbreak yet placed no responsibility upon Baker or his administration for the deaths.”
DiZoglio also questioned why Urena was forced to resign by the administration when he had no statutory oversight of the management and operations at Holyoke.
DiZoglio said in a text message that she agrees Urena deserves an apology.
“A head had to roll and they picked the Lawrence kid,” DiZoglio said, echoing the veterans’ group’s assertion that Urena was scapegoated. “I do think our local Purple Heart veteran, Francisco Urena, should receive an apology from the governor.”
DiZoglio is calling for a Senate oversight hearing, “with sworn testimony from the governor and his administration, utilizing the full subpoena and record review powers within the Legislature’s purview, into the layers of potential wrongdoing raised in the Globe article.”
She also said the article “raised concerns around Governor Baker’s claim that the first time he met Walsh was during his swearing-in to the superintendent position — a claim refuted in the (Globe’s) Spotlight report, which revealed Baker was in fact greatly involved in his hiring and even interviewed him.”
She added, “As we took time to remember and honor those brave soldiers who gave their lives for our nation this Memorial Day, I was filled with an even greater sense of urgency and responsibility to find out what truly happened at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in order to prevent it from ever happening again.
“As elected leaders, we need to do more to protect the most vulnerable veterans in our care. Now is the time to get answers.”