The auditing firm the Baker administration hired to investigate the Registry of Motor Vehicles is refusing to turn over records from dozens of interviews it conducted of current and former state employees, some of whom were directly involved in the failures exposed by a grisly New Hampshire crash that killed seven people.
Grant Thornton LLP, which has already been paid nearly $2 million by the state, argued the documents are confidential under its agreement with Massachusetts. And it indicated it wouldn’t release them without legal action, telling a Department of Transportation lawyer that any requests “should be in the form of a subpoena.”
The legal posturing is frustrating lawmakers who’ve sought the documents, and a legislative committee conducting its own probe of the agency has yet to hold a second oversight hearing, in part, because of Grant Thornton’s refusal, a committee chairman said.
Governor Charlie Baker’s administration said it supports the legislative request that the records be public. But Grant Thornton’s stance has added a new wrinkle to monthslong wrangling over the scope of records turned over to lawmakers following the fatal June crash. It involved a West Springfield man whose license should have been stripped by the Registry because he had refused a chemical sobriety test weeks earlier in Connecticut.
The revelation that Registry officials didn’t act before the crash prompted the then-registrar to resign, and laid bare years of neglect of basic public safety responsibilities.
“These interview records are relevant, critical and fundamental to any full examination by the Legislature as to what went on” at the Registry, said Representative William M. Straus, cochair of the Legislature’s transportation committee and himself an attorney. The presumption, he said, is that the records involve the state’s own employees and “should be available to the state itself.”
“And given the context of this horrible case,” he said, “there’s certainly an expectation that they’re going to find their way into the public realm.”
In October, the firm released a final 106-page report that found the Registry’s failure to track alerts from other states where Massachusetts drivers broke the law “spans multiple administrations.” State officials were alsoso consumed with improving customer service operations, according to the report, they pushed aside or outright neglected other work to keep unsafe drivers off the road.
Grant Thornton paraphrases responses from several officials within the report. But it also identified 41 officials it spoke to, ranging from Stephanie Pollack, Governor Charlie Baker’s transportation secretary, and Mindy d’Arbeloff, a Baker deputy chief of staff, to lower-level officials Grant Thornton said directly handled a queue that contained alerts from other states. The firm also spoke with officials lawmakes have already questioned in a public hearing, including the former head of the unit tasked with processing the notices.
The Baker administration said it backs the Legislature’s request for notes, recordings, or transcripts from the interviews that Grant Thornton officials conducted. In an Oct. 25 letter to Jimmy Pappas, a partner at the firm, MassDOT attorney Marie Breen said that state officials “stress the importance of . . . being transparent and available to our legislative and investigative colleagues.”
But a week later, an attorney for Grant Thornton sent an e-mail asserting the documents are confidential and considered “working papers” that it created as part of the process. Under a 24-page agreement the state signed with the firm in July, those types of documents are its property, it argued.
“Any requests for working papers should be in the form of a subpoena,” Elizabeth Epstein, a Grant Thornton attorney, wrote at the end of the Nov. 1 e-mail.
It’s not clear if the Baker administration will pursue a legal fight. Jacquelyn Goddard, a MassDOT spokeswoman, declined to comment when asked how the administration responded, and Straus said after speaking earlier this month with Pollack, she gave no indication if the state would fight the denial.
“She wasn’t happy about this either, but she did not say what steps, if any, they would take,” Straus said.
MassDOT, as a state agency, doesn’t have subpoena power. Goddard also said the department “was and is aware of the language Grant Thornton is citing” when Registry officials signed the contract.
The denial doesn’t appear to have strained the administration’s ties with Grant Thornton, either. Last week, it extended its contract with the firm by a month, to Dec. 15. Goddard said the state agreed to the extension because the firm is “still being engaged,” including for a recent “conversation” with the state auditor’s office. To date, the Baker administration has paid the firm $1.96 million, it said.
Jon Rucket, a Grant Thornton spokesman, declined to comment on its discussions with the state, but defended its decision to deny releasing the records.
“Our firm’s standard policy is not to share working papers,” he said in an e-mail. “This is consistent with our client-engagement letter with the RMV, and professional standards.”
Straus, the transportation committee chair, said lawmakers have since requested the administration turn over any notes and records its own employees have from the interviews.
The transportation committee itself doesn’t have subpoena power, but lawmakers could seek it through a vote in both legislative chambers, said Straus. “If it’s up to the Legislature to act in the public’s interest to find out what the 41 witnesses . . . knew about the failures at the Registry, then I am sure the Legislature is up to the challenge,” he said.
The Registry has faced intense scrutiny since it admitted that it failed to act on alerts it received about Volodymyr Zhukovskyy before he allegedly crashed into and killed seven motorcyclists on a New Hampshire highway.
The head of a unit responsible for processing out-of-state alerts was fired in August, and the state has since created a new office to handle the task. State officials have also worked to trim back other outstanding backlogs within the agency.
Straus and Senator Joseph A. Boncore, the Senate chairman of the transportation committee, said at the time Grant Thornton released its final report that the committeeplanned to hold an oversight hearing by the end of October, with testimony from Grant Thornton officials and others. It would have been the second such hearing the committee held, following a July event during which officials admitted they knowingly stopped processing alerts back in March 2018.
But it’s unclear when, or in what form, that will now happen.