For at least 20 years, the Registry of Motor Vehicles has failed to stay on top of alerts from other states about Massachusetts residents who broke their traffic laws, creating a massive backlog that allowed an untold number of drivers to skirt potential sanctions and remain on the road.
An independent audit released Friday revealed that the failure by the RMV to suspend the license of a 23-year-old truck driver accused of causing a crash in June that killed seven was part of a years-long pattern of delay and neglect by the agency that extends to other critical functions.
In addition to rushing to reduce the mountain of unprocessed notices from other states, the RMV is also contending with significant backlogs in other areas, such as processing violations of drivers who have ignition interlock devices in their cars and adding criminal information about drivers to their records, according to the audit.
The Baker administration commissioned the review by accounting firm Grant Thornton after the New Hampshire tragedy. The audit found that Registry officials failed to exercise basic oversight and were so consumed with improving customer service operations that they pushed aside or outright neglected the behind-the-scenes work intended to keep unsafe drivers off the road.
“Massachusetts had a long-standing policy of not prioritizing the processing of out-of-state notifications,” said the 106-page audit. “This policy spans multiple administrations of the state government’s executive branch.”
This failure had tragic consequences when the Registry failed to act on alerts it received in late May about Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, who had refused to take a chemical sobriety test in Connecticut. The paper and electronic notifications from Connecticut should have resulted in Massachusetts suspending Zhukovskyy’s license, which would have made him ineligible to work as a truck driver at the time he was on a delivery in New Hampshire in June and allegedly caused the deaths of seven people on motorcycles. Zhukovskyy has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
The crash, and subsequent revelations about the Registry’s failings, prompted fallout at the state agency. Registrar Erin Deveney stepped down and Thomas Bowes, another RMV official, was fired.
A preliminary report revealed that an RMV employee saw an electronic alert suggesting Zhukovskyy’s commercial license should be suspended. The employee spied the alert for just a few seconds, but took no action because he had never been trained to.
That lapse was one of many cited in the report. Auditors generally found miscommunication, a lack of knowledge, lax oversight, and unease with the technology also contributed to the Registry’s wholesale woes.
In a letter released with the audit, acting Registrar Jamey Tesler said he agrees with auditors’ prescription for changing the culture within the agency.
“I will also continue to emphasize with all of the RMV’s employees what has been my priority since arriving here — that all employee functions are essential to the RMV’s overall mission and responsibility to our customers and the safety of the roadways,” Tesler wrote.
Tesler noted that other states also struggle to keep driver records current and notify counterparts about traffic violations.
On Friday, for example, the Registry said it received about 22,000 paper notifications from Rhode Island about Massachusetts drivers who have been convicted of traffic offenses there since 2017. Rhode Island officials had already entered the information into a national database, a spokesman for that state’s Division of Motor Vehicles said.
More than 6,300 Massachusetts drivers’ licenses have been suspended as part of the internal review of what went wrong.
The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation is pressing ahead with an investigation into whether officials outside of the Registry were aware of safety lapses within the agency.
“Today’s report certainly makes clear that no single person within the Registry caused the widespread and systemic problems in the public safety operations of the Registry,” said a joint statement from state Representative William M. Straus and state Senator Joseph A. Boncore, who lead the committee.
A spokeswoman for Governor Charlie Baker said Baker “appreciates the work that went into” the audit.
“As highlighted in this report, the Registry has already made significant progress over the past few months to address structural and organizational issues at the RMV, and the administration expects this work to continue to keep our drivers and roads safe,” spokeswoman Lizzy Guyton said.
The audit goes back as far as 1999 to shed light on the origins of the Registry’s lackadaisical approach to processing notices.
Auditors cited an undated memo written by a Registry lawyer during the tenure of Daniel Grabauskas, who led the agency from 1999 to 2002. The memo warned of the “great risk” Massachusetts faced because it refused to participate in a voluntary national pact that set information-sharing standards between state motor vehicle divisions. Massachusetts is one of only four states not signed onto the agreement known as the Driver License Compact, the audit said.
The decades-old memo noted that the decision not to join the compact gave Massachusetts a bad name among other state motor vehicle agencies and that states “with lesser resources and technology have joined.”
The current leadership of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation told auditors that it was unaware of the existence of the memo prior to the Zhukovskyy crash. The former registrar, Deveney, confirmed she knew the Registry was not part of the national compact, the audit said.
Auditors determined the Registry stopped systematically processing alerts about local drivers who broke traffic laws in other states in 2013 and later passed over opportunities to tackle accumulating backlogs.
In 2016, the job of processing the alerts was transferred to the Merit Rating Board, a Registry division. Bowes, then the leader of the Merit Rating Board, wanted to find a way to process the alerts in a way that wouldn’t result in license suspensions for the oldest infractions, the audit said.
A contractor provided the Registry with a proposal for carrying out Bowes’s plan on Jan. 6, 2017, the audit said, but never got approval for proceeding with the project.
More than two years later, March 19, 2019, Bowes drafted an e-mail to Deveney in which he estimated he would need five full-time workers to process out-of-state notifications that had piled up.
Auditors, however, believe the e-mail was never transmitted to Deveney, the audit said.
After the crash in New Hampshire, the RMV discovered 72 boxes, 53 mail bins, and five banker boxes brimming with unprocessed paper notifications from other states.
The audit raises concerns about other areas where Registry workers have fallen behind.
As of Monday, there were more than 13,000 items in a queue of criminal data information, the audit said. The data awaiting review could result in driver’s license suspensions, the audit said.
There’s also a backlog in processing violations related to ignition interlock devices, which administer alcohol breath tests to drivers before they can start their vehicle, the audit said.
Tesler said the Registry has workers on overtime to help catch up on that backlog, saying there are about 1,275 items in the queue and about 350 are being completed weekly.