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Former highway safety chief quits state job

Sheila Burgess’s driving record was a major embarrassment to the Patrick administration.

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Sheila Burgess’s driving record was a major embarrassment to the Patrick administration.

Sheila Burgess, the former state highway safety director, resigned as a state employee late Wednesday, three days after revelations that her driving record included seven motor vehicle crashes, four speeding violations, and a variety of other­ infractions.

Burgess, a former Democratic Party fund-raising consultant, had been out of work on medical leave since Aug. 24, when she crashed her state-owned vehicle into the woods during work hours in Milton. She suffered a head injury.

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Her driving record was detailed in the Globe on Sunday.

Burgess’s resignation, which is effective Dec. 31, came three days after the Patrick­ administration announced that she was being removed from her position as safety director but would remain a state employee “in a different position” to be determined later.

“I feel my health must be my first priority,” Burgess, 48, wrote in her resignation letter.

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“It has been my pleasure to serve this administration over the past five years,” she wrote in a one-paragraph letter to Mary Elizabeth Heffernan, the state secretary of the Office of Public Safety and Security.

Burgess was paid $87,000 annually.

“I have accepted [her resignation],” Heffernan said in a statement. “She should not have been hired for the position and while she has been a solid and dependable employee, she recognized, and I agree, that she could not expect the public’s trust if she were to continue in the position.

“We wish [her] a full recovery and will now turn our attention to moving the Highway Safety Division forward,” Heffernan added.

Burgess’s driving record — 34 entries in all, including failing to show up for a hearing on a speeding ticket and failure to pay local excise taxes — became a major embarrassment to the administration of Governor Deval­ Patrick following Sunday’s news account.

The disclosures about her driving record raised questions about how Burgess got the highway safety director’s job, especially since she has no experience in public safety, transportation, or government administration.

In a resume circulated to staff members, Burgess, who lives in Randolph, listed herself as a principal of SBH Consulting/Mass Strategy Group, with a client list that included Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. 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.

US Representative James McGovern, a close political ally of Patrick and Murray, acknowledged that he had in 2007 pushed the newly elected Patrick administration to hire Burgess. Burgess had been an aide to the late US Representative J. Joseph Moakley during a time when McGovern, too, worked for Moakley.

But McGovern’s office was careful to point out the congressman knew nothing of her driving record and did not recommend her for any specific position.

McGovern “just said, ‘Here’s a good person for the Patrick administration to hire,’ ” said Michael Mershon, a spokesman for McGovern.

It remains unclear how the Patrick administration handled Burgess’s hiring after McGovern recommended her, including whether a routine background check was done.

Patrick’s office declined to comment Wednesday on how Burgess got the highway safety director’s position. Earlier in the week, Patrick expressed anger and vowed “to get to the bottom” of her hiring.

“We have made great effort to make sure our administration is staffed with committed, qualified and dedicated professionals,” read a statement from the administration on Wednesday. “That is overwhelmingly the case and I am proud to work with so many talented people. However, we don’t always get it right. And when we don’t, we fix it.”

Previously, Patrick had made it clear that Burgess would be welcome to stay in the administration, though in a different post.

Administration officials said on Wednesday that Burgess’s resignation was her idea.

Less than an hour after Burgess’s resignation — and just minutes before the close of business for the Thanksgiving holiday — the Patrick administration released records showing that Burgess had used her state cellphone to send 545 text messages in August, the month of her accident in Milton.

Burgess told State Police that the crash occurred when she swerved to avoid an oncoming motor vehicle in her lane.

Officials at the public safety department earlier this month provided a copy of one page of her cellphone records showing she was not talking on the phone at the time of the crash.

State officials did not respond late Wednesday to questions about whether they had attempted to determine if texting was a factor in the Milton accident.

Since her appointment to a state job in 2007, Burgess has faced no new moving motor vehicle violations. At the time of the crash in Milton, her license was active but she had been 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.

Until her accident, Burgess managed a staff of about six and helped award millions 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 failing to use a seat belt while driving, among other hazards.

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