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Who hired Mass. highway safety director remains a mystery

The former state highway safety director, who resigned last month following revelations that she had a lengthy record of driving infractions at the time she sought the job, wrote in her 2007 application that she heard of the opening from Mary Beth Heffernan, now the Patrick admin­istration’s public safety secretary.

Sheila Burgess, whose driving record includes six at-fault accidents and four speeding violations, also listed US Representative James McGovern of Worcester and former Boston advertising executive Jack Connors as references in the application, released Friday following a public ­records request from the Globe.

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Burgess, a longtime Democratic consultant and fund-raiser, was interviewed by Heffernan as part of the new administration’s hiring process when Heffernan was undersecretary of criminal justice, accord­ing to Matthew Moran, a public safety spokesman.

Although routine background checks by human resources workers uncovered the driving infractions, Heffernan and other officials said, that record was not passed on to the hiring manager.

“This information was properly collected, but was not flagged for the hiring manager, as it should have been, per our hiring policy,” Heffernan said in a statement. “Had the hiring manager been aware of the record, Ms. Burgess would not have been offered this job.”

At the time of the interview, Moran said, Heffernan knew Burgess professionally and was familiar with her consulting and fund-raising work for McGovern and campaign work for the late Joseph Moakley, another Democratic congressman from Massachusetts. The interview with Heffernan was not for a specific job, Moran said.

“While I was not secretary at the time, I [have] acknowledged that this hiring process was seriously flawed, and, to me, that is unacceptable,” ­Heffernan told the Globe Friday. “We have the appropriate checks in place to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again, and Sheila has resigned. It is time to get on with moving the department forward, and that’s what we’re focused on.”

Moran did not identify the human resource staff member who failed to flag Burgess’s ­record; Moran said that employee left the department in mid- to late 2007. Moran also did not identify the hiring manager, who he said left the administration in early 2008.

McGovern has said he recommended Burgess to the ­Patrick administration but not for a specific position. His ­office has said he was unaware of her driving record.

Governor Deval Patrick echoed Heffernan’s criticism of the hiring process in this case.

“The breakdown in protocol is extremely frustrating,” Patrick said. “My administration, like previous administrations, has brought on people who support our policies and agenda. But given her driving ­record, there is no way Ms. Burgess should have been hired for this position. We have taken corrective action and will move forward accordingly.”

Representative Bradley H. Jones Jr., the House Republican leader, said the administration appears to be trying to quash further questions into what he said was an obvious political appointment.

“We still don’t know who, in fact, made the decision to hire this person,” Jones said. “Do you just go to every [Cabinet] secretary and say hire who you want? . . . The reality is, look, this is a political appointment. The governor should just ­admit it.”

As part of the hiring process, Heffernan said, Burgess was interviewed by two other managers at the Executive ­Office of Public Safety.

Before her resignation from the $87,000-a-year job, ­Burgess, 48, had been on medical leave since a seventh accident, when she crashed a state-owned vehicle in Milton on Aug. 24 during work hours. At 1:16 on a sunny afternoon, her car veered off the road in the Blue Hills Reservation and struck a rock outcropping, a State Police report says. She told police she swerved to avoid an oncoming vehicle.

Her resignation is effective Dec. 31.

Burgess’s driving record ­also includes failures to stop for a red light or stop sign, failure to stay in her lane, driving without registration or license in possession, and driving without wearing a seat belt.

After being cited for speeding in New Hampshire in 1999, she failed to show up at her hearing, records show. Until Nov. 1, her license could not be renewed because of failure to pay local excise taxes.

As director of the Massachusetts Highway Safety Division, Burgess’s mission was to reduce accidents by promoting good driving practices. She oversaw public campaigns on the dangers of speeding, text­ing while driving, driving while impaired, and failing to wear a seat belt, among other hazards.

Once on the job, Heffernan said, Burgess performed well and had been praised by the US Department of Transportation “for continuous improvement in communications” with the federal government.

Burgess was appointed without any background in public safety, transportation, or government administration. State documents recommend that the minimum background for the position include a bachelor’s degree with a major in business administration, business management, public admin­istration, or criminal justice.

Burgess wrote on her application that she had attended the College of Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She did not note whether she had graduated.

If a candidate for the position does not have the preferred degree, according to state guidelines, the applicant should have at least five years of senior managerial experience in highway safety, public safety, or transportation, and at least two years of experience in grants administration or highway safety and transportation policy.

Burgess worked for almost two decades as a paid consultant and congressional aide, raising money and ­advising candidates .

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@
globe.com
. Sean P. Murphy
can be reached at smurph@
globe.com
.
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