Getting the Baker administration to turn over records relating to the Registry of Motor Vehicles license suspension scandal is more like “a visit to the dentist, where you’re pulling teeth, than what it should be, a sharing of information between coequal branches” of government, says state Representative William Straus, the House chairman of the transportation committee that’s looking into the fiasco.
It shouldn’t be so difficult. By trying to determine who knew what and when about a dangerous dereliction of duty at the RMV, legislators are doing their job. Yet it’s taking multiple requests and threats of subpoenas to get e-mails and internal memos from Stephanie Pollack, the secretary of transportation under Governor Charlie Baker.
Let’s not forget why those records are wanted. In June, Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, a Massachusetts driver whose license should have been suspended, crashed into a group of motorcyclists in New Hampshire, killing seven. In May, Zhukovskyy had been arrested for drunk driving in Connecticut. But that notification from Connecticut was one of tens of thousands of out-of-state violations that were ignored by the RMV.
In the aftermath of the revelations about Zhukovskyy’s license, Erin Deveney resigned as registrar of motor vehicles. Who else bears responsibility for this massive failure, and what will it take to fix the problem permanently? That’s what lawmakers are trying to determine from records they have been requesting since July.
To be fair, the committee did ask for a wide range of e-mails, memos, and other information. Pollack said last week the department had hired a third-party vendor to sift through its files to complete the request, and noted that removing personal information and attorney-client privileged data “requires significant, time-consuming redaction.”
Pollack says she wants staff to act “as quickly as possible” to provide answers, and it has already begun providing files to the committee. But since the actions and inactions of the secretary herself are one of the subjects under scrutiny, lawmakers should keep up the pressure.
Pollack has said that she knew nothing about a three-year backlog of out-of-state reports that was never processed by an agency she’s supposed to oversee. Yet records that have already been turned over detail numerous communications between RMV and DOT officials concerning the unprocessed violations.
Deveney told lawmakers she knew about the backlog in 2015, when she took over as registrar. At the time, out-of-state violations fell under the purview of the Registry’s Driver Control Unit. As of June 2015, that unit was headed by Keith Constantino, who told lawmakers he discovered the boxes while getting to know his new job. When he learned what they contained, he became concerned, and even took photographs of them. The solution: Transfer responsibility to Thomas Bowes, who took charge of the Merit Rating Board in July 2016. By doing that, Constantino passed a hot potato to an obscure bureaucracy that operates somewhat mysteriously as a subdivision of the Department of Transportation and Registry of Motor Vehicles. Under state law, the board consists of the registrar of motor vehicles; the commissioner of insurance; and the attorney general or designee. The board appoints a director, in this case, Bowes, a Braintree town councilor who reportedly has also been planning a mayoral run.
Lawmakers also released a memo dated Oct. 7, 2016, from Deveney, Bowes, and Constantino, which is addressed to “Office of the Governor — legal department/MassDOT legal department.” It states that the three are seeking approval to transfer responsibility for a backlog of out-of-state citations to the Merit Review Board. However, Pollack described the memo as a “draft” and said there’s no record of it ever being sent to its intended recipients.
On Feb. 23, 2017, Bowes sent an e-mail to Constantino saying, “It looks as though when all parties are ready we might start on a certain date and go six months back.” In response, Constantino wrote, “Thanks for the update, hope we can get confirmation from the Registrar and Governor’s Office soon to proceed.” At the hearing, Deveney testified she made the decision to transfer responsibility to the MRB on her own; Constantino dodged a question about whether “confirmation” was obtained.
In April 2019, an auditor for the Department of Transportation — which Pollack heads — issued a written memo warning officials of 12,829 unprocessed notices from other states. The auditor said she told Deveney and Bowes, and also briefed her supervisor. But Pollack said she knew nothing about the audit findings, because they were preliminary, not final.
It’s astonishing the way that, in the Baker administration’s version of events, important information repeatedly failed to find its way up the bureaucratic ladder. The governor himself also says he knew nothing about the backlog of traffic violations until Deveney resigned. His administration now owes the public a full accounting of exactly who did know and why they did nothing about it, and the Legislature should take whatever steps it needs to get the facts.
“What has troubled me about the whole inquiry from the start is that, if there hadn’t been a tragedy, we wouldn’t know how badly things were operating at the Registry,” said Straus. “Part of what drives me . . . is the need to find out and make something positive happen as an outcome, because those lives were lost.”