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JOAN VENNOCHI

With state agency scandals, the buck never stops with Baker

Stephanie Pollack, secretary and CEO of MassDOT, watches as Thomas Bowes, director of the Registry’s Merit Rating Board, answers questions from lawmakers during a probe of RMV officials on Tuesday.
Stephanie Pollack, secretary and CEO of MassDOT, watches as Thomas Bowes, director of the Registry’s Merit Rating Board, answers questions from lawmakers during a probe of RMV officials on Tuesday. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Nearly 13,000 out-of-state traffic violations were boxed, then blithely forgotten about by officials running the Registry of Motor Vehicles. It left Massachusetts drivers free of any penalties for their dangerous behavior — and free to prey on the rest of us.

Shocking behavior? Not really. You might even call contempt for records accepted conduct around here. On Governor Charlie Baker’s watch, State Police conveniently destroyed several years’ worth of payroll records that could have been used as key evidence in a federal case involving overtime abuse. Meanwhile, the Department of Children and Families can’t or won’t produce data that would back up statistics about child deaths.

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Problems in these state agencies go back for decades. But Baker sold himself as a super manager in chief who would demand and enforce excellence. Yet when things go wrong, he never seems to know much about the problem. And he forgives those who do.

Baker called State Police efforts to destroy records a mere “mistake” and then praised the department for cooperating with investigators — as if cooperation should ever be a choice for law enforcement officials. When he first ran for governor, Baker harshly criticized DCF as a “broken agency” and pledged to fix it. If the measure is dead children, he can claim some progress. According to a Globe report, 34 children under state watch died over the past fiscal year versus 48 the previous year. But there’s a disturbing lack of transparency about how many children died as a result of neglect or abuse, and no urgency from Baker to address it.

He’s working hard to stay cocooned from the RMV scandal; on Wednesday, he said he knew nothing about the records backlog until Registrar Erin Deveney resigned in June. Stephanie Pollack, the state secretary of transportation, who oversees the RMV, is also pleading ignorance. In prepared remarks submitted to a legislative committee looking into the matter, Pollack decried “the unconscionable failure at the Registry of Motor Vehicles” — a failure she’s trying to keep at arm’s length, like a bad summer cold.

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The records problem came to light after Volodymyr Zhukovskyy of West Springfield was charged with killing seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire on June 21. He had been arrested for drunk driving in May, in Connecticut, but was able to keep his commercial driver’s license; the Connecticut notification was one of those tens of thousands of out-of-state violations that were mailed to the Massachusetts RMV, packed away, and ignored.

RMV officials were no-shows at the first legislative hearing called to scrutinize this massive systems failure. Facing backlash, Baker “strongly encouraged” them to appear. Maybe he worried what they might say if he ordered them to testify.

On Tuesday, they toed the Baker administration line.

Deveney, who resigned after the Zhukovskyy incident, told lawmakers she knew about the stashed-away records back in 2015. In 2016, she said she moved responsibility for dealing with them from one unit, called the Driver Control Unit, to another unit, called the Merit Rating Board. She said it was her decision and “was not a conversation I specifically had with the secretary (Pollack).” Keith Constantino, who headed the unit that turned over control, said he didn’t know if Pollack was told about the plan to transfer responsibility for the out-of-state violations. Thomas Bowes, who heads the Merit Rating Board, said he spoke only to Deveney about it.

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Yet in the fall of 2016, Constantino prepared a memo addressing the backlog of out-of-state citations. The memo — a copy of which was released by lawmakers — was addressed to Baker’s legal counsel, as well as to the Department of Transportation legal office. But Pollack said she never got it, and there’s no record “this draft memo was ever sent beyond the RMV.”

In April 2019, Brie-Anne Dwyer, a DOT auditor, issued a written memo warning officials of 12,829 unprocessed notices from other states. She said she told Deveney and Bowes. Pollack said she knew nothing about those DOT audit findings, either.

Hmmm. Missing memos? Call the State Police. Then again, maybe not.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.