In late June, state officials began an extraordinary task: digging through dozens of bins stuffed with paper alerts about law-breaking drivers, each of which had been ignored for months by a little-known Registry of Motor Vehicles unit known as the Merit Rating Board.
A team sorted thousands of documents in days — “working nearly literally around the clock” and through the weekend, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said at the time.
Not among the team members: Thomas Bowes, the leader of that obscure subdivision, who was 3,200 miles away in Europe watching a baseball game.
Weeks into a still-growing scandal, the Registry remains mired in questions about how it failed to track errant motorists for months, if not years — putting unprecedented scrutiny on the office headed by Bowes, a former insurance executive, longtime Braintree town councilor, and now a mayoral hopeful.
State officials have since suspended the licenses of more than 1,600 drivers who, they admit, should have lost them earlier but didn’t, because the notices from other states where the motorists had broken driving laws were left to languish in the Registry’s Quincy headquarters. The agency had also failed for years to notify other states when their drivers run into trouble in Massachusetts, officials disclosed last week.
Reached by phone, Bowes declined to answer questions and didn’t respond to an e-mail or follow-up text message. He also would not say how involved he is with the ongoing probe.
“I have no comment until all the investigations are completed,” he said.
But as the crisis first unfolded, Bowes was in England, starting his vacation June 26 — the same day officials discovered the 53 bins filled with unprocessed notices dating back to March 2018.
Bowes documented the trip on his Braintree mayoral campaign’s Facebook page, describing it as a wedding anniversary celebration. That Saturday, he posted that he visited the famed Windsor Castle, witnessing the changing of the British Army guard. Hours later, he was in London for the first-ever Major League Baseball game on European soil, between the Red Sox and Yankees.
It was the same game Governor Charlie Baker attended during an official trip overseas, though Baker’s aides say he didn’t see Bowes in London, nor does he recall ever meeting him.
In one social media post, Bowes lamented missing the Braintree Day parade. In another, during the early morning hours of July 2, he posted a photo of himself and relatives in a restaurant, celebrating their time “across the pond.”
Hours earlier, Baker and Pollack had stood in the State House to publicly disclose the lapses, calling them “completely unacceptable.”
Registry officials say Bowes remains in his $114,455-a-year post. Until recently he reported directly to Registrar Erin Deveney, who resigned amid revelations the Registry should have terminated the commercial license of a West Springfield trucker before he allegedly crashed into a group of motorcycle riders in New Hampshire, killing seven.
State officials did not answer questions about Bowes’s absence and what impact it had on the early stages of the review. They have yet to explain why his unit stopped processing the notifications in the spring of 2018, nor have they provided other details, including from which states the notices came or whether any suspended drivers broke other driving laws during the time they were supposed to be barred from the road.
Sarah Finlaw, a Baker spokeswoman, said in a statement that the governor acted with urgency, ordering an “immediate review” of how the state shares data, empowering Pollack to address the lapses, and receiving regular briefings.
But the matter has already invited scrutiny on Beacon Hill — where lawmakers have scheduled an oversight hearing and requested that Bowes, among others, appear — and within the Department of Transportation itself.
“I truly find it incomprehensible as to how someone, anyone, considered it acceptable to place suspension documents into bins, then place them into storage without being processed,” Timothy King, a member of the MassDOT board, said in remarks at a Wednesday board meeting broadcast by WCVB.
First hired by MassDOT in June 2016, Bowes had worked at the since-shuttered Encompass Insurance office in Quincy, where RMV officials said he started in the mid-1980s and held several positions, including “claims service leader.”
State officials did not respond to a request for Bowes’s resume, though he has said in a campaign statement that he has 30 years of experience working in the insurance industry. A registered Democrat, he has served on the Braintree town council since 2008, including a year as president.
He is now running to replace outgoing mayor Joseph Sullivan, who said Wednesday that Bowes has shown a “good working knowledge” of municipal finance and has represented his district well.
At the Merit Rating Board, Bowes oversees an agency tasked with maintaining the state’s driving records, including processing insurance claims and sending driving records to Massachusetts auto insurers and other government agencies, according to the state.
But among the still-lingering questions at the RMV is why the board’s staff simply stopped checking the mail.
The Merit Rating Board has been responsible for processing out-of-state notifications since the fall of 2016, when it took over the job from the RMV’s Driver Control Unit after it fell behind amid a “substantial backlog,” according to RMV officials. But in March 2018, the board’s staff stopped processing notifications from other states, a decision state officials have yet to explain.
The same month, the RMV had replaced its antiquated registration system with a new version, known as ATLAS, and had signed up to join a voluntary electronic notification system created by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. The majority of states, however, have not joined and still send paper notifications.
The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation has scheduled a hearing for Monday to dig into “management, notice, and record-keeping issues” at the agency. In a letter to Pollack on Thursday, lawmakers requested that acting Registrar Jamey Tesler, Bowes, Deveney, and others testify, in addition to providing a series of memos, e-mails, and other documents about state-to-state notifications.
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.