The state agency that licenses more than 500,000 professionals and tradespeople may have failed to conduct required criminal record and sex offender background checks for years, allowing criminal offenders to avoid detection, according to a new audit.
Auditors could find no proof that the Division of Professional Licensure performed criminal record checks for more than two-thirds of applicants granted licenses for everything from electricians to massage therapists during the 2½-year period they reviewed. For more than 40 percent, there was no indication that a sex offender record check had been conducted, either. Such reviews are required, though a criminal or sex offender record doesn’t necessarily disqualify an applicant from getting a license.
Auditors also said they could find no criminal record information on 99 percent of nearly 32,000 licenses issued by the Office of Public Safety and Inspections, which is also overseen by the DPL. The office is required to perform criminal record checks for some of its licensees, including people operating amusement park rides.
The division’s “failure to ensure criminal background checks were being conducted by its boards and commissions is a glaring failure in administration, one which the agency has now acknowledged,” said auditor Suzanne Bump. “Now that DPL is in the process of an organizational overhaul, the time is ripe to address deficiencies in the licensure and background check process.”
In a statement, a DPL spokesman said the agency “appreciates the recommendations contained in the audit report regarding internal controls over background checks, which are in line with the changes the agency was working on before the audit began.”
The agency, the statement said, has hired new staff, reviewed databases and is creating a new background unit to be headed by a new Director of Background Checks.
The spokesman also said the agency did required background checks, and gave the auditors the available proof. It produced Sex Offender background check documentation, the spokesman said, but couldn’t provide criminal record check backup because the agency is required to destroy it after a period of time.
The Division of Professional Licensure licenses everyone from electricians to massage therapists to veterinarians. But each profession has its own individual board within the division and has its own guidelines for conducting criminal records checks.
The audit came after the Globe wrote a series of stories detailing that the Division of Professional Licensure, now called the Division of Occupational Licensure, had issued licenses to people with serious criminal records, including dozens of sex offenders. Legislators called for an overhaul of the agency.
One license holder, an electrician name Benjamin B. Brause, was rated a Level 3 sex offender after he was convicted of sexually assaulting a boy. Brause renewed his license online — even though at the time he was locked up for sexual assault. He is no longer licensed.
At the time, DPL insisted it had conducted required checks and the fact that sex offenders were granted licenses was due to a “technical glitch.” But Bump’s audit covered a period that extended for several months after the Globe stories ran.
Applicants are supposed to disclose any new criminal charges when they renew their licenses. The licensing office also is supposed to regularly check the sex offender registry to see if any new applicants or those seeking renewal are on the list. Though the exact standards for denying a license vary depending on the profession, all state boards are supposed to consider public safety risks.
Oversight of several public health related boards and commissions was transferred to the Department of Public Safety after the Legislature passed a reorganization bill, which was signed into law in August. The law also changed the agency’s name.
While most boards also require criminal record checks, Bump also urged the agency to “issue guidance” to the Office of Public Safety and Inspections, which requires applicants for only nine of its 85 different license types to undergo criminal record checks. She urged the agency to “determine whether their licensees serve vulnerable populations” and should therefore be subject to criminal record checks.
Tackey Chan, House chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, said the audit reflects changes the committee recommended last year after it conducted its own investigation in the wake of the Globe stories.
“We will continue to work with the new DPL to ensure that this failure does no harm and does not happen again,” Chan said.
His committee in late 2019 had urged the Baker administration to launch an “immediate and thorough” investigation into the agency that licenses professionals and tradespeople across the state.
Senator Diana DiZoglio, who was a member of the committee last year and is a candidate for auditor, said that while DPL’s mission is to protect the public, the audit makes clear that its boards and commissions “have fallen woefully short in ensuring applicants are sufficiently vetted. The lack of a stringent vetting process is completely unacceptable.
“It is imperative the agency be held accountable and corrective actions be taken immediately in the most transparent of fashions,” she said.
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.