Attorney General Maura Healey has derided the Registry of Motor Vehicles’ failures to track troubled drivers as a “shameful” example of a “lack of leadership, lack of management, [and] lack of accountability” in the Baker administration.
Unlike other critics, however, Healey has a role with the beleaguered agency: She holds a seat on the three-person panel tasked with overseeing the much-maligned Merit Rating Board, the Registry unit now at the center of the scandal.
The obscure panel, which apparently has not met in years, has largely sunk into the background amid other glaring deficiencies within the Registry, notably its failure to process an alert about a West Springfield trucker who, weeks later, allegedly hit and killed seven people in a horrifying crash in New Hampshire.
But with the board reconvening Tuesday, the attention is likely to nudge its members, Healey included, into the spotlight that’s been on the agency and those assigned, in varying degrees, to monitor it.
Under state law, the panel — which, like the unit it oversees, is also called the Merit Rating Board — includes the RMV’s registrar, the state’s insurance commissioner, and the attorney general or an appointee, all of whom are required to appoint a director of the unit that handles the day-to-day role of maintaining and updating driving records.
By all accounts, it has been an absentee panel.
The acting registrar, Jamey Tesler, who will chair Tuesday’s meeting, said in a report issued last week that it has been “some time” since the three-person board met in public, and state transportation officials have not answered questions about when that last session occurred.
That, Healey’s aides say, is not her doing. Healey’s records show the board has not convened since 2015, said spokeswoman Emalie Gainey, who added that her office has since “made repeated requests,” mostly by phone, that it meet.
She also said that Healey’s designee, Glenn Kaplan, chief of the attorney general’s Insurance and Financial Services Division, was never asked to vote on the office’s current director, Thomas Bowes, though that decision is supposed to be made by the board.
Healey is not planning to attend Tuesday’s meeting; Kaplan will be there in her place.
“We have been disappointed by the lack of leadership, management, and accountability by the [Baker] administration on this matter,” Gainey said in a statement. “We have repeatedly asked for the board to convene, to no avail. We look forward to meeting [Tuesday] and will advocate for changes to leadership at the Merit Rating Board.”
The scandal has spurred Healey to investigate the company that employed the troubled West Springfield trucker, Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, before the June 21 crash. And, during an appearance this month on WGBH’s “Greater Boston,” Healey did not close the door to pursuing other probes of the Registry itself.
In the same appearance, Healey — twice elected statewide and a rising star in the Democratic Party — issued scathing criticisms of the Registry and of Baker, a Republican, saying that “ultimately, he’s responsible” for mismanagement at the agency.
“It is just shameful what transpired,” Healey told host Jim Braude, adding that it’s “unacceptable to not have those papers processed, to not have the issue identified and the resources put in place.”
Healey nodded to the other ongoing reviews of the Registry, including by the Legislature. “But my God,” she said. “I think most of us were shocked to learn that this was what was happening within our own Registry.”
Tuesday’s meeting is part of an effort to “reactivate the statutory oversight role” of the board, Tesler said, and could include votes on unspecified “personnel changes.” State officials have not provided more information on what that could entail.
Yet as the board sat dormant for years, problems quietly mounted at the Merit Rating Board. Bowes and the former registrar, Erin Deveney, have said they knowingly stopped processing paper notifications from other states about Massachusetts drivers in early 2018, amid a separate backlog of in-state notices.
The revelation prompted at least one lawmaker to call for Bowes’s resignation.
Registry officials also admitted the Merit Rating Board did not address years of backlogged notifications after the job of processing them was transferred there from another Registry unit in 2016.
Whether Deveney consulted others about that decision remains a focus of the legislative investigation. If she did not tell the Merit Rating Board’s oversight panel of the shift in responsibility, “it would be hard to say that the other two board members can be held accountable,” said Representative William Straus, cochair of the Committee on Transportation.
“That said, should a statutorial three-member board be actively involved? I would say yes,” said Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat who noted that a more-regular board is among the recommendations that could emerge from the reviews of the agency.
“I’m not excusing the board for not meeting,” he said. “But we have to be careful that we’re not entering a scapegoat mode as to what went wrong.”
The Registry has been beset by a series of failings, especially its handling of Zhukovskyy’s record. An interim report from an outside firm disclosed that a Registry employee, Michael Noronha, had opened Zhukovskyy’s electronic record weeks after the driver had refused a chemical sobriety test in Connecticut and saw an alert suggesting his commercial license should be suspended.
But Noronha closed the file after seven seconds, without making any changes. Zhukovskyy allegedly caused the New Hampshire crash a month later.
The 60-page audit from Grant Thornton LLP has drawn criticism from the National Association of Government Employees, which called the decision to name Noronha and his supervisor, Susan Crispin, “mind-boggling and truly unconscionable.”
Noronha told investigators that he took no action on the alert because he had never been trained to.
“The question that should be answered by this audit is when did Governor Baker and MassDOT Secretary [Stephanie] Pollack know that the RMV wasn’t meeting its obligation to the public on the public safety aspect of the agency’s mission?” David J. Holway, the union’s president, said in a statement Monday.
Deveney resigned shortly after the fatal accident, which spurred the first of many disclosures about the Registry’s operations.
Baker and Pollack have said they first learned the agency had been ignoring alerts on law-breaking drivers the day Deveney stepped down.