Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles officials were told three months before a fatal crash involving a truck driver with a long history of infractions that nearly 13,000 alerts from other states about law-breaking drivers were languishing in an obscure unit within the agency, lawmakers learned Tuesday.
Registry officials had knowingly stopped processing alerts from other states in March 2018, and didn’t act for more than a year despite multiple warning flags about the failure to strip some licenses, creating the dangerous backlog.
The revelations, detailed during more than seven hours of testimony on Beacon Hill, paint a picture of an agency crippled by systemic dysfunction, questionable management decisions, and rigid staffing that spanned years before the crash that killed seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire thrust the Registry into its current crisis.
Erin Deveney, the former head of the Registry who resigned in June, disclosed that the department had, in fact, never processed the paper notifications other states sent it about errant Massachusetts-licensed motorists until she moved the responsibility in 2016 to a little-known unit known as the Merit Rating Board.
Governor Charlie Baker’s transportation secretary, Stephanie Pollack, told lawmakers that even as the issue first bubbled to the surface in 2016, the Registry didn’t let on about how serious the problem was. “We have no evidence that this issue was ever framed as being about anything other than old traffic citations,” she said.
Lawmakers, however, sounded surprised about how such a widespread problem could have gone unnoticed for so long.
“I think you can see in our questioning . . . a skepticism, if you will, or surprise that this level of procedural and management failures within the Registry was pretty much unknown to anyone else in state government,” said Representative William Straus, who cochairs the Joint Committee on Transportation. “There seems to be a disconnect there.
“The overall picture I got was, certainly within the Registry of Motor Vehicles, a lack of clear mission, a lack of assignments, a lack of clear responsibilities,” he later added. “There’s clearly still a long way to go.”
The legislative panel convened the hearing to try to determine why the Registry did not act on notifications from Connecticut that Volodymyr Zhukovskyy had been charged with drunken driving in that state in May. The 23-year-old remained on the road until he was charged in the June 21 crash that killed seven people in Randolph, N.H.
Massachusetts officials admitted afterward that they should have terminated his commercial license before the fatalities.
Deveney resigned amid the disclosures and shortly before state officials said the Registry had deeper-seated problems — namely that the Merit Rating Board had ignored tens of thousands of notifications from other states about Massachusetts drivers, dating back to at least March 2018.
But, officials said Tuesday, warnings about the issue had lingered long before.
When the state launched new software that month, Deveney and the board director, Thomas Bowes, said they stopped processing the daily notices still flowing in amid concerns the unit was falling behind on handling Massachusetts-based driving citations.
In his testimony, Bowes said his staff was struggling with adjustments to new software, and that his requests to Deveney to bulk up the board’s roughly 62-person staff went unheeded.
“I did not have the manpower,” he said.
Deveney said the Registry had to work with a specific head count for full-time employees, and that the “obligation” of the Registry was to “offer the services with the resources that we had.”
“I take responsibility for decisions made,” Deveney said.
A year after that decision to stop processing out-of-state notifications in 2018, however, an internal auditor sent Deveney another warning. Brie-Anne Dwyer, who works in the Department of Transportation’s audit unit, testified that in March she told Deveney that a backlog of 12,829 unprocessed notices from other states was sitting in an electronic queue within the Merit Rating Board.
The unit was responsible for processing the notifications from other states where Massachusetts-licensed motorists violated driving laws. The notifications, she said, included convictions for operating under the influence, speeding, and other offenses.
Dwyer, who was tasked with auditing the board starting in January, said she also brought her findings to Bowes the same month. But when she asked him then who was in charge of processing them, Bowes was blunt, she said.
“He stated, ‘Nobody,’ ” Dwyer told lawmakers.
Bowes said he contacted an IT employee about the backlog, but acknowledged he didn’t pursue it further.
“An auditor told you there were 12,829 unprocessed tasks in the area of your responsibility and you asked one IT person [for help] and that was the end of it?” Senator Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, asked Bowes at one point.
After a pause, Bowes replied: “Yes.”
Pollack told lawmakers she was never told of the extent of the backlog.
The Registry — now led by an acting registrar, Jamey Tesler — has since suspended the licenses of more than 1,600 drivers who, officials admit, should have lost them earlier but did not, because the paper notices were left unprocessed at the Registry’s Quincy headquarters.
The agency had also failed for years to notify other states when their drivers ran into trouble in Massachusetts. Officials have said they plan to put a system in place by Wednesday to automatically generate paper notifications for other states but that they will continue to mail them because there isn’t a system in place for states to exchange that information electronically.
Throughout the hearing, lawmakers continually raised questions about Baker’s administration, including how its focus on improving customer service at the Registry may have handicapped its focus on public safety, and what his office may have known about the out-of-state notifications before the June crash.
In the fall of 2016, the head director of the state’s driver control unit had prepared a memo — a copy of which the committee released — specifying there was a backlog of out-of-state citations, without describing its size. The memo was addressed to Baker’s legal counsel, as well as the Department of Transportation’s legal office. But Pollack told lawmakers that the memo never made it to them.
“We have located no record that this draft memo was ever sent beyond the RMV,” she said. “It was a draft sent to the registrar but there is no evidence she ever resent it to its intended recipients.”
Tuesday’s marathon session came roughly a week after lawmakers abruptly ended a short-lived and contentious first attempt to conduct a hearing on July 22, when Baker administration officials didn’t produce witnesses or documents they wanted and said they could not answer many questions because of their own ongoing review.
Each of those invited Tuesday attended, though some didn’t testify after the hearing ran long, including representatives from Grant Thornton, the auditing firm the state hired to do a 60-day review of the Registry’s out-of-state violations system, and Fast Enterprises, which developed the RMV’s record-keeping software.