Despite years of warning signs within the Registry of Motor Vehicles, Governor Charlie Baker said Wednesday that he learned the agency had been ignoring alerts on law-breaking drivers only about a month ago, when the beleaguered agency’s registrar resigned.
Baker said officials at the Registry never made him aware of a lapse in handling paper notifications from other states on Massachusetts drivers, and he expressed amazement that the agency actually had never processed them until a few years ago.
“I was first made aware of the discrepancy on this on the day the registrar resigned,” Baker said Wednesday of Erin Deveney, who stepped down June 25 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.
Deveney testified for about two hours before a legislative committee Tuesday, telling lawmakers that the Registry had, in fact, never processed the paper notifications other states had sent until she moved the responsibility in 2016 to a little-known office called the Merit Rating Board. Deveney had worked at the Registry in several stints dating back to 2000.
“Twenty. Twenty years,” Baker said in an apparent reference to a time frame that the Registry didn’t perform that job. “Nobody was doing this stuff for over 20 years. That part is absolutely incredible to me.”
Baker’s comments came on the heels of the stunning hearing before the Joint Committee on Transportation, where Registry officials said they were told three months before the New Hampshire crash that nearly 13,000 alerts from other states had gone unprocessed.
Registry leaders had knowingly stopped processing alerts in March 2018 and didn’t act for more than a year despite multiple warning flags about the failure to strip some licenses, officials testified.
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. But lawmakers were skeptical that the problems had never reached higher than Registry leadership.
Senator Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, asked multiple witnesses whether the governor’s office had been notified about the simmering problems.
“There were multiple audits over years that identified this as a serious issue,” Lesser said after the hearing. “It was clear that multiple folks at the highest levels were aware of the issue.”
Deveney and the Merit Rating Board’s director, Thomas Bowes, told lawmakers they decided to stop processing the daily notices in March 2018 amid concerns the unit was falling behind on handling Massachusetts-based driving citations.
Bowes said his staff was struggling with adjustments to new software the Registry launched that month and said his requests to Deveney to bulk up the board’s approximately 62-person staff went unheeded. He testified he didn’t have the “manpower” to perform the work.
Baker declined to comment on that complaint Wednesday, saying he’ll await the findings of an outside firm the state hired to review the agency.
“Obviously that’s a big question mark,” he said of the staffing and funding levels within the RMV. “It’s one of the things we want to get to the bottom of.”
Fallout from the hearing, however, had already started Wednesday. In a statement, Lesser called for Bowes’s resignation, saying he was the one “most directly responsible for ensuring that these records” were processed.
Brie-Anne Dwyer, who works in the Department of Transportation’s audit unit, testified Tuesday that she told Deveney and Bowes in March that a backlog of 12,829 unprocessed notices from other states was sitting in an electronic queue within the Merit Rating Board.
Deveney is the only official to have resigned since the crisis broke into public view in late June.
“Mr. Bowes was alerted multiple times, by multiple state entities, from the State Auditor to a MassDOT internal auditor to other officials at the RMV, that there were boxes of unprocessed documents that could put public safety at risk, and he failed to act,” Lesser said. “Mr. Bowes has lost the confidence of the public that he can continue in his current role, and he should resign.”