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Mass. highway safety chief is removed

Will be reassigned over driving record

Sheila Burgess, the top safety officer since 2007, is on medical leave recovering from an Aug. 24 one-car accident in Milton in which she drove off the road and suffered a head injury.

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Sheila Burgess, the top safety officer since 2007, is on medical leave recovering from an Aug. 24 one-car accident in Milton in which she drove off the road and suffered a head injury.

The administration of Governor Deval Patrick, embarrassed by revelations that the state highway safety director has a driving record that includes seven accidents, four speeding violations, and two failures to stop for a police officer, announced today that the director will be removed from that job.

Sheila Burgess, the top safety officer since 2007, is on medical leave recovering from an Aug. 24 one-car accident in Milton in which she drove off the road and suffered a head injury. She told police she swerved to avoid an oncoming vehicle in her lane.

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Burgess will be assigned to a “different role” within the state Office of Public Safety and Security, according to a statement released today by Mary Elizabeth Heffernan, the public safety secretary.

“Given her driving record, it is clear that Ms. Burgess should not have been hired as the director of Highway Safety in 2007,” Heffernan said in the statement.

Burgess is a former fund-raising consultant to high-profile Democratic candidates for public office, including Representative James McGovern, whose office said on Friday that McGovern asked the newly elected Patrick administration in 2007 to hire Burgess, but without suggesting a specific role for her. She is paid $87,000 annually.

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Burgess had no experience in public safety, transportation, or government administration when hired, according to her resume.

Heffernan called Burgess “a solid and dependable employee” during the intervening years, but today, following a Globe story that revealed her driving record, said she no longer has confidence in Burgess leading the state’s efforts to reduce accidents by promoting good driving practices.

Burgess “cannot expect the public’s trust, nor mine, as the directory of Highway Safety going forward,” the statement says.

Burgess, 48, of Randolph, has 34 entries on her her record. Since her appointment to a state job, Burgess has faced no new moving motor vehicle violations.

Her license was active but flagged for nonrenewal for failure to pay local excise taxes. Those taxes were paid and her license cleared on Nov. 1, after the Globe began making inquiries.

Heffernan’s statement was released hours after Patrick, speaking to reporters at a public event unrelated to Burgess, said he was angry about her being hired as highway safety director and vowed to find out how it happened.

“I will get to the bottom of it,” he said.

Burgess’s most recent crash occurred on a sunny summer afternoon in a state vehicle during work hours. State Police say they arrived at the scene on Unquity Road in the Blue Hills Reservation to find Burgess being assisted by an ambulance crew.

The public safety department produced a record showing Burgess was not talking on her state-provided cellphone, but declined to release a summary of how many text messages, if any, she sent or received during that month’s billing cycle. Such bills provide a total number of text messages in the month, but do not say when the texts were sent or received.

Spokesmen for Patrick and Heffernan declined to comment on whether such paperwork will be released soon.

Until her accident, Burgess managed a staff of about six and helped award more than $2 million in grants to state and local police for public awareness programs on safe driving, including money for police overtime.

Those programs deal with the dangers of speeding, texting, and talking on a cellphone while driving, driving while impaired, and failure to wear a seatbelt while driving, among other hazards.

In a resume circulated to staff members, Burgess listed herself as a principal of SBH Consulting/Mass Strategy Group, with a client list that included Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray when he was a candidate for mayor of Worcester in 2003 and 2004. A spokesman for Murray’s campaign, however, said Murray does not know Burgess and that she never worked for him. Murray does know Burgess’s sister, Coleen, who worked as a fund-raising consultant for Murray, the spokesman said.

Coleen Burgess and Sheila Burgess are listed as president and registered agent, respectively, of Mass Strategy Group.

Other clients listed on Burgess’s resume including Senator John F. Kerry, state Senator Tom McGee, James Sheets, former mayor of Quincy, and former gubernatorial candidates Shannon O’Brien and Chris Gabrieli.

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.
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