The public was told it was getting straight talk about what went wrong at the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles. That is, from Grant Thornton LLP, the audit firm hired by the state after seven motorcyclists were killed by the driver of a pickup truck who, a month after his arrest and refusal to take a breathalyzer test in Connecticut, still had a commercial license from Massachusetts.
Months after the scandal, questions remain about whether the agency and the governor have done enough to earn back public trust — and whether we should feel safe on the roads.
There’s only one way to find out: by releasing the records of interviews conducted by Grant Thornton of current and former state employees, some of whom were directly involved in the administrative failures that led to that horrific crash. But the firm initially refused to release its interview notes to a legislative oversight committee on the grounds that those notes are “working papers,” subject to a confidentiality clause. Then, after the Globe’s inquiries, they said are in touch with the legislators to discuss turning over the notes.
Grant Thornton’s final report revealed a backlog of thousands of out-of-state traffic citations that could have resulted in license revocations and a workplace culture that discouraged employees from informing higher-ups of problems. Those findings were based in large part on information gleaned from 41 interviews. Among those questioned were Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack; Mindy D’Arbeloff, deputy chief of staff to Governor Charlie Baker; Erin Deveney, the former registrar of the Department of Motor Vehicles; Thomas Bowes, the former director of the Merit Rating Board; and Keith Costantino, the director of the RMV’s Driver Control Unit.
Remember, the audit — for which the public paid nearly $2 million — was presented as an independent, third-party assessment, and the final report states that “interviews, focus group discussions and discussions with federal and state regulators that Grant Thornton initiated were not observed by any RMV official, other Massachusetts official, or other third party.”
Yet a footnote on page 20 also says that initial interviews of Bowes, Costantino, and Steve Evans, director of Driver Licensing, were conducted in the presence of state lawyers, along with Grant Thornton representatives, and not under oath. A representative from the governor’s office was also present for D’Arbeloff’s interview. Bowes, Costantino, and Evans were subsequently interviewed only in the presence of Grant Thornton representatives. But it’s fair to wonder how much that initial legal presence might have chilled their candor.
Grant Thornton’s argument that the interview notes are confidential is based on language that is ambiguous at best. It states, “If access to any of the materials in the possession of Grant Thornton . . . is sought by a third party . . . Grant Thornton will . . . cooperate with RMV concerning the response thereto.”
A third party is seeking access. That would be the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, which is conducting its own review of who knew what about the backlog of out-of-state violations. “The bias should be in favor of disclosure,” said state Representative William Straus of Mattapoisett, the committee’s cochair, "to ensure for the public that the Grant Thornton report has not cherry-picked from the interview records.”
Fixing the RMV’s problems means more than fixing the backlog. It means changing the culture. And that could mean changing a leadership team that claims it knew nothing about the backlog. The records could tell us exactly who knew what, how future backlogs can be avoided, and also whether the audit process itself was corrupted.
As for Governor Baker, he said last week on Boston Public Radio that state officials were talking to Grant Thornton about the records, and the firm’s announcement suggests the governor may have gotten some initial results. Marie Breen, the same MassDOT lawyer who participated in some interviews of state employees with Grant Thornton, wrote to the firm, saying her agency “supports the committee’s request that interview transcripts or notes be made public.”
Governor Baker should now personally ensure that Grant Thornton follows through in releasing the information. If he doesn’t, it’s an insult to the public, which footed the bill. And an even bigger insult to the memory of those seven people who died because the state didn’t do its job.