Governor Charlie Baker, who built a reputation on tackling the intricacies of state bureaucracy, says he learned only weeks ago that an obscure unit within the Registry of Motor Vehicles had ignored thousands of alerts about law-breaking Massachusetts drivers.
The contention, however, is doing little to silence questions about the still-unfolding scandal, namely what Baker and his top aides knew, and when, about the problems festering within the Registry while the agency ignored multiple warnings about its failures to track notifications from other states.
The scope of the systemic problems, detailed in explosive testimony this week before a legislative committee, has prompted lawmakers to pick at details about the agency’s staffing. They’ve also questioned whether Baker’s push to improve customer service at the Registry hindered its ability to perform its other role of helping keep the roadways safe — which Baker denies.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said Tuesday’s “very disturbing” testimony has opened up questions about people “higher up, [and] how far did it go.”
“I think there are a whole lot of questions,” the Winthrop Democrat said Wednesday at the State House.
Officials testifying before the Joint Committee on Transportation largely indicated that knowledge about the full scope of the problem “was all contained within the Registry of Motor Vehicles,” said Representative William Straus, the committee cochairman. But it did little to satisfy lawmakers, who have publicly released hundreds of pages of e-mails, reports, and internal e-mails from the Registry.
“Members of the committee frankly were kind of skeptical that issues like this, on a public safety function, were only known within the Registry of Motor Vehicles,” Straus said. “So the committee still has lots of work to do.”
Baker said Wednesday he didn’t learn about the lapse in handling paper notifications from other states until then-registrar Erin Deveney resigned on June 25, and his transportation secretary, Stephanie Pollack, testified that Registry officials hadn’t fully disclosed the seriousness of the problem.
Deveney stepped down amid revelations 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 a June 21 crash that killed seven people in Randolph, N.H. Massachusetts officials admitted afterward that they should have terminated his commercial license.
In her testimony Tuesday, Deveney also disclosed that the department had, in fact, never processed the paper notifications sent by other states about errant Massachusetts motorists until she moved the responsibility in 2016 to the Merit Rating Board.
In March 2018, however — as the Registry was launching a new software system — Deveney and the board’s director, Thomas Bowes, knowingly stopped processing the out-of-state alerts, in part to address a backup in Massachusetts citations, they said this week.
A year later, an internal MassDOT auditor warned Deveney and Bowes that the unit had a backlog of 12,829 unprocessed notices — including OUI infractions — from other states, all of which were sitting in an electronic queue. The auditor, Brie-Anne Dwyer, told lawmakers Tuesday it was unclear what officials did to address it. Bowes testified he contacted an IT employee about the backlog but acknowledged he didn’t pursue it further.
It was only in late June, after the New Hampshire crash thrust the Registry into crisis mode, that officials discovered dozens of mail bins containing tens of thousands of unprocessed notices from other states where Massachusetts drivers had run afoul of the law.
Registry officials have since suspended the licenses of more than 1,600 drivers who, they admit, should have lost them earlier.
But Baker, who made revamping the Registry a campaign promise, forcefully denied that his focus on “front of the house” customer service played a role.
He pointed to testimony from Deveney, who worked at the Registry in various stints starting in 2000, that the agency had never before processed the paper notifications from other states.
“The fact that this has been an issue at the RMV since the year 2000, which is a very long time ago, I think speaks to the fact that the Registry just didn’t do this, OK?” Baker said Wednesday, adding that the customer service side of the Registry “had equally significant issues” when he took office.
“But I don’t think you can suggest the focus on the front of the house had anything to do with this given that these problems are documented . . . back 20 years,” he said.
In his testimony Tuesday, Bowes said he did not have the “manpower” to process the alerts from other states, and that his requests to Deveney to bulk up the board’s approximately 62-person staff went unheeded.
Bowes said his unit has lost five employees but gained none since he took over in 2016.
Baker declined to comment on Bowes’s complaint Wednesday, saying he’ll await the findings from the firm Grant Thornton, which the state hired to review the agency.
“Obviously that’s a big question mark,” he said of the staffing and funding levels and the impact on the Registry. “It’s one of the things we want to get to the bottom of.”
But fallout from the hearing had already started Wednesday. In a statement, Senator Eric Lesser, who sits on the transportation committee, called for Bowes’s resignation, saying he was the one “most directly responsible for ensuring that these records” were processed.
“Mr. Bowes has lost the confidence of the public that he can continue in his current role, and he should resign,” Lesser said.
MassDOT officials did not respond to a request for comment from the Registry or Bowes on Wednesday, but Baker said that after Grant Thornton completes its review, the administration will decide about “respective personnel.”