DeLeo Embraces Rep. Campbell’s Plan for Special Investigative Panel into Veterans’ Holyoke Deaths

State Rep. Linda Dean Campbell shares a moment with a veteran during a previous ceremony at the State House. (Courtesy photograph.)

As a former federal prosecutor was conducting an investigation into the deadly outbreak of COVID-19 at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, Rep. Linda Dean Campbell was getting in the ear of the speaker about the Legislature pursuing its own inquiry.

Campbell, who represents Methuen and Haverhill and is a former U.S. Army paratrooper, said she believes there’s an opportunity to not just get to the bottom of what happened in Holyoke, but to also explore how Massachusetts can improve the way it cares for its veterans.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s embrace of Campbell’s recommendation for a special legislative oversight committee likely means that legislative reforms to the oversight of the Holyoke veterans home may have to wait, and sets up another potential point of friction between the House, Senate and governor.

“We only get one shot at this. We’re not going to get another shot at this for a long time, so let’s take out time and talk to the veterans and the experts to prepare for the future,” Campbell told the News Service.

A day after releasing the blistering independent counsel report on the COVID-19 outbreak at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, Gov. Charlie Baker filed legislation Thursday to implement the report’s oversight recommendations, including starting annual inspections of the home in Holyoke by the Department of Public Health.

DeLeo, however, reiterated that he intends next week to present an order to the House to create a Special Legislative Oversight Committee to conduct its own review.

“Before we begin to consider any legislative solutions, we need the answers to many more questions, starting with why this tragedy was able to occur. We’re not going to try and fix a problem before we know the full scope of the problem,” the speaker said in a new statement.

The legislature, of course, could do both things: pass the governor’s immediate reform proposals and pursue its longer-range inquiry. But it’s also true that issues have a tendency to lose steam on Beacon Hill after the initial shock and impetus for lawmakers to take action wears off.

The idea for the oversight committee came from Campbell, who co-chairs the Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs with Sen. Walter Timilty. Instead of fast-tracking the governor’s bill, Campbell said she’d like to see the dialogue continue into the next session in 2021, and the oversight reforms incorporated into a larger package.

Campbell said that since the outbreak that killed at least 76 veterans in Holyoke became public many veterans organizations, including the Disabled American Veterans Department of Massachusetts, have reached out with ideas and concerns about what happened.

“That’s who we want to hear from because in our legislative visits to Holyoke and talking to people as we processed this tragedy many people said the needs of the veterans are changing and care is changing rapidly,” the Methuen Democrat said.

Campbell specifically mentioned rethinking how the Soldiers’ Homes in Holyoke and Chelsea are set up and designed, how they are staffed, and whether a new generation of veterans suffering from head injuries and other traumas need a different approach to care.

“Their needs might be different. We have the capacity now with the experts we have in the commonwealth to offer some of the best care in the world to our veterans if we seek out these experts,” she said.

While the speaker has not specifically mentioned the Senate in any of his public statements since Wednesday, the speaker’s office said it was open to Senate participation, and a spokesman for Senate President Karen Spilka said the office was “in discussions” with the House.

“My recommendation on this is that it be a joint committee of the Senate and the House,” Campbell said.

Earlier in the day, Spilka told the News Service that her concern was making sure nothing like what happened in Holyoke can happen again. She said she had spoken to Sen. Walter Timilty, the co-chair of the Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs, about looking at “both policy and funding changes that are needed to provide what is clearly a need for increased oversight to better protect the health and safety of our veterans.”

“They have given so much to this state and this country and we owe them that in return,” Spilka said.

Campbell, however, said it’s possible that the independent counsel report, and its recommendations, is just the tip of the iceberg.

She said it was important for the Legislature to have waited for the governor’s outside review to be finished, and to consider the findings of additional inquiries underway by the attorney general, U.S. attorney and inspector general that could shed a different light on the problems, or expose new ones.

“The governor’s report, understandably and appropriately, looked at what happened immediately so immediate steps could be taken, but other reports we may receive might approach the tragedy from a more systemic perspective,” Campbell said.

If approved, Campbell said it’s possible that the special oversight committee will seek subpoena power to compel witness testimony, and will likely require additional resources and staff with expertise in these types of investigations.

“We don’t have the staff that the attorney general has to do this right,” Campbell said of the Veterans and Federal Affairs Committee.

“I know veterans feel very strongly about how we have to do this right. I didn’t want, nor did the committee want, this to be something that is superficial and we don’t have the investigative tools on our committee to do this correctly,” Campbell said.

The speaker’s office is still working to write the order to create the special oversight committee, which will govern much of the scope the group’s work, if approved.

(Katie Lannan contributed reporting.)

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