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RMV was long aware of problems that led to scandal, documents show

In early 2017, Registry of Motor Vehicles staff organized thousands of unprocessed notifications other states sent when Massachusetts drivers violated driving laws on their roads, before boxing them to send them to a Registry “warehouse.”
In early 2017, Registry of Motor Vehicles staff organized thousands of unprocessed notifications other states sent when Massachusetts drivers violated driving laws on their roads, before boxing them to send them to a Registry “warehouse.” (Department of Transportation)

The banker boxes were carefully stacked in neat rows — five high and as many as 15 across — and arranged by date and state of origin.

Keith Costantino took such care in March 2017 to document the approximately 72 cartons at the Registry of Motor Vehicles’ Haymarket office that he took two photos of the tidy wall lined with thousands of alerts about law-breaking Massachusetts drivers.

At the time, the images could have been mistaken for a model of organization. But today, they are portraits of abject administrative neglect.

Instead of plucking the notifications from those boxes, as required, Registry officials let them languish in storage for years, ensuring that any number of troubled drivers remained licensed. And they only finally took action when a 23-year-old man with a terrible record allegedly crashed into and killed seven people in June on a New Hampshire highway after officials didn’t strip him of his license.

A Globe reconstruction of events, culled from hours of testimony and hundreds of pages of documents shared with a legislative committee, paint a picture of an agency that was long aware of the problems festering within its backrooms but often opted to instead squirrel them away in an innocuous bin or inbox.

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Now the Registry, once considered a sluggish, if not bungling, bureaucracy, is engulfed in full-blown scandal that for some has meant life and death.

“That goes beyond gross negligence. It’s willful negligence,” said Bill Perry, whose 45-year-old son, Aaron, was killed in the collision. “They weren’t doing their job. There’s no oversight of them. No one’s saying, ‘You’re not doing your job. You’re fired.’”

Following the fatal June 21 crash, the Registry’s top leader resigned, and officials have suspended the licenses of more than 1,600 drivers who, they admit, should have lost them earlier.

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Governor Charlie Baker and his top transportation aide say they had not been told of the rot growing within an agency he had, as a candidate, vowed to overhaul.

The scandal’s roots stretch back years, but it’s also born from decisions made squarely during Baker’s tenure. And the problems, it seems, often fit nicely into a box, tucked away for someone to find.

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Keith Costantino testified before Beacon Hill lawmakers on July 30.
Keith Costantino testified before Beacon Hill lawmakers on July 30.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Keith Costantino was three months on the job in August 2015 when he decided to “clean up” a storage room — dubbed a document library — within the Registry’s Haymarket office.

But amid the casework files and other papers there, he said, he found something else altogether: evidence that other states had been mailing the Registry notifications about Massachusetts-licensed drivers who had broken the law on their roads. Some dated back to 2013, he said.

The Registry was, and is, responsible by law for ensuring these notices are processed and the infractions reflected on a driver’s record. At the time, that role fell to an office called the Driver Control Unit.

Costantino was its director. And he said this was the first he became aware the notifications existed.

It wasn’t until months later, in the spring of 2016, that he proposed a fix to a group of state officials and consultants: Give the work to someone else.

The Merit Rating Board, another division of the Registry, already processed in-state citations, he argued, and would be equipped to handle out-of-states ones as well.

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Registrar Erin Deveney agreed. By September 2016, the board’s staffers underwent a “small training,” Costantino said, and their recently hired boss, Thomas Bowes, prepared for the transition. The unit was given no additional staff.

Three Registry officials — Deveney, Bowes, and Costantino — then drafted an Oct. 7 memo saying they needed three to six months to “clear” the backlog Costantino found. The memo was addressed to legal counsel for both Baker and the Department of Transportation, but Stephanie Pollack, the state’s transportation secretary, would later say it was never sent to them.

The backlog, meanwhile, idled. It had yet to be transferred to the Merit Rating Board by February 2017, when Bowes e-mailed Costantino that staff “might start” to process six months’ worth, even though the notices stretched back three years.

When Costantino finally gathered all the out-of-state notifications that March to hand them to Bowes’s unit, he stacked dozens of boxes into well-organized rows and documented it with the photos. He e-mailed Bowes on March 17, 2017, saying the “warehouse” was scheduled to pick them up.

Costantino later said he couldn’t recall what “warehouse” they were destined for.

Bowes, in testimony to lawmakers at an oversight hearing last month, said he put two staffers on the job of processing notices in the fall of 2016, but with a focus of only working on current notifications, not backdated ones.

Deveney, who worked at the Registry for the better part of two decades, told a legislative panel that before this moment, she was not aware the Registry had ever processed notifications from other states even though Massachusetts law requires it.

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Erin Deveney, who resigned as registrar following the June crash in New Hampshire, also testified at the July 30 hearing.
Erin Deveney, who resigned as registrar following the June crash in New Hampshire, also testified at the July 30 hearing.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

March 26, 2018, was a momentous day for the Registry. After a three-day shutdown, it would reopen branches with a new software system and offer a new kind of license under federal rules.

It was disastrous. Five-hour waits greeted customers, and delays dragged on for weeks.

Behind the scenes, something more dangerous was happening. Already facing a monthslong backlog in out-of-state notifications that had built up under Bowes’s watch, the Merit Rating Board fell behind in another duty — processing in-state citations. Bowes said there was a 10-day period in which his staff couldn’t enter any data into the system, and when it finally emerged from that, there was a backlog of up to 27,000 citations from within Massachusetts.

Bowes said he notified Deveney — in late March or early April, he estimated — and the officials made a fateful decision: Outright stop processing alerts from out of state and “possibly go back” to them later, Bowes said.

By June 2018, Bowes’s staff had caught back up on in-state violations, he said. But the Merit Rating Board never returned to the ones still flowing in from outside Massachusetts’ borders.

Six months later, on Jan. 2, a former Driver Control Unit hearing officer named Brie-Anne Dwyer began her first day of work within the Department of Transportation’s audit department. Her assignment: Review the Merit Rating Board.

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Within two months, she made an unsettling finding: Nearly 13,000 alerts were sitting in an electronic inbox. They had all been mailed by another state, and at some point, the board’s staff scanned each one and entered it into the system electronically, Dwyer testified.

But, she asked Bowes, who was assigned the task of actually processing them?

“Nobody,” Bowes said, according to an internal memo. His staffers “do not have time.”

Brie-Anne Dwyer (above) began working within the Department of Transportation’s audit department in January. Her first assignment: Review the Merit Rating Board.
Brie-Anne Dwyer (above) began working within the Department of Transportation’s audit department in January. Her first assignment: Review the Merit Rating Board.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Dwyer then met with Deveney; Jim Logan, MassDOT’s director of audit operations; and members of a separate MassDOT unit in Deveney’s office. During an hourlong meeting on March 14, the officials spent 10 to 15 minutes discussing the backlog, and Dwyer said she left without knowing whether Deveney would take action.

When she checked the inbox again on March 22, the backlog had not budged. She drafted a report with her findings and recommended the job of processing the notifications be moved back to the Driver Control Unit within 60 days. That would have been June 28.

By then, the agency was in turmoil.

Allegedly high on drugs and reaching for a drink, Volodymyr Zhukovskyy had swerved his Dodge pickup truck over the yellow center line of a country highway in Randolph, N.H., police contend, and plowed into a motorcycle group of Marine veterans on June 21. Zhukovskyy, 23, was charged with seven counts of negligent homicide.

Weeks earlier, the West Springfield trucker had been arrested in East Windsor, Conn., and charged with allegedly driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs after he refused to take a chemical sobriety test. Connecticut officials alerted Massachusetts via electronic and paper mail notifications.

No one checked them. Deveney, faced with the failure, resigned on June 25, and state officials quickly swept in Jamey Tesler, the state Transportation Department’s former chief operating officer, to replace her.

Bowes, meanwhile, was preparing for vacation. He and his wife were stepping on a plane to England, a trip he said he had planned a year earlier. He told lawmakers at the hearing last month that’s when he “found out about the situation that we’re here for” — even though he had earlier testified before the lawmakers that he and Deveney had known for 15 months notifications weren’t being processed.

Amid a post-crash scramble for answers inside the Registry’s Quincy headquarters, officials discovered tens of thousands of unprocessed paper notifications dating to at least March 2018, when the Registry last stopped inputting them to driver’s records. They were sorted neatly, by month, and within 53 individual mail bins.

Officials also embarked for the Registry’s archival storage in Concord, where they found even more. The labels said the notifications dated between 2014 and 2017, but some stemmed from 2011.

And they were stored in 72 boxes.

Thomas Bowes, director of the Registry of Motor Vehicle's Merit Rating Board, said his staffers “[did] not have time” to process alerts sent to the RMV by other states.
Thomas Bowes, director of the Registry of Motor Vehicle's Merit Rating Board, said his staffers “[did] not have time” to process alerts sent to the RMV by other states.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com.