Lawmakers called the hearing to investigate why the Registry of Motor Vehicles had failed to suspend hundreds of errant drivers, including the truck driver from Western Massachusetts charged in a fiery crash that killed seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire in June.
But as soon as Monday’s hearing began, it became apparent that it would not go as planned.
Two Registry officials who had been called to testify were nowhere to be found. The private contractors who installed the Registry’s software system failed to show. And reams of documents that lawmakers had requested from Governor Charlie Baker’s administration were not turned over.
So the committee members abruptly gaveled the hearing to a close and sent Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and Acting Registrar Jamey Tesler on their way without taking any testimony from them about the Registry’s problems.
It was a dramatic show of frustration and a reflection of the escalating tensions between the Republican administration and the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
The Transportation Committee does not have subpoena power, and the committee chairs said after the hearing that they were considering what options they might have to compel administration witnesses to testify.
The panel is trying to find out why the Registry failed to act on written and electronic notifications from Connecticut notifying the agency that Volodymyr Zhukovskyy had been charged with drunken driving in that state in May.
Zhukovskyy, 23, remained on the road until he was charged in the June 21 crash that killed seven people in Randolph, N.H.
“We’re both pretty frustrated,” Senator Joseph Boncore, Senate chairman of the committee, told reporters as he stood with Representative William Straus, the House chairman, after the hearing ended following about 30 minutes of speeches by angry members.
“We have a duty to the public at large and the Commonwealth and the families of the victims who suffered this awful loss in June to get to the bottom of these questions,” Boncore said.
Straus said he was frustrated that the Baker administration did not make Thomas Bowes, director of the Registry’s Merit Rating Board, and Keith Constantino, director of the Driver Control Unit, available to answer questions.
Bowes has been under scrutiny since the Globe reported last week that he was on vacation in Europe in June, when Registry officials went into crisis mode and began digging through dozens of bins stuffed with paper alerts about law-breaking drivers. The alerts had been ignored for months by his little-known agency.
Erin Deveney, who resigned as registrar following the fatal New Hampshire crash, also failed to respond to a request to testify, Straus said.
“Until we get the kind of cooperation — which includes what everyone knows are the key players — why should we piecemeal what is such an important topic?” Straus told reporters.
Administration officials said that since Friday, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation has provided training manuals, technology system information, and other requested information covering several years of Registry operations.
But Pollack said the administration does not want to make certain witnesses and information available before Grant Thornton, an auditing firm hired by the state, completes its 60-day review of the Registry’s out-of-state violation system. The firm’s findings are expected in mid-September.
“We think it’s important for both our investigation and theirs that we have time to assemble the documents, interview the witnesses, and get to the bottom of what happened,” Pollack told reporters. “So we will continue to work with the committee to find a path forward that satisfies their needs but maintains the integrity of the Grant Thornton forensic audit.”
In a letter to lawmakers sent Friday and made public Monday, Pollack elaborated on her concerns, writing that the “integrity of Grant Thornton’s ongoing investigation might easily be cast into doubt if any MassDOT or RMV witnesses were to offer public statements at this time providing their own, perhaps incompletely informed, assessments” of the Registry’s system for suspending drivers for out-of-state violations.
“Furthermore,” Pollack wrote, “any such statements might improperly influence the memories and later testimony of other witnesses, which could undermine the creditability of Grant Thornton’s review and ultimate findings.”
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said he was “extremely disappointed” with the administration’s response and called on state officials to cooperate. “The Legislature will not be thwarted in the discharge of its oversight responsibilities,” DeLeo said in a statement. “The citizens of the Commonwealth deserve nothing less.”
The Massachusetts Democratic Party piled on with its own response Monday: a public records request seeking information relating to the Registry’s out-of-state violation notices, as well as the Baker administration’s internal communications relating to the committee hearing.
“The chaos at the RMV demands scrutiny and transparency,” said Gus Bickford, party chairman.