Prying information from Governor Charlie Baker’s administration shouldn’t be like pulling teeth — especially when the information concerns the massive management failure at the Registry of Motor Vehicles and its tragic consequences.
That failure led to a backlog of tens of thousands of unprocessed out-of-state traffic violations — including one issued by the state of Connecticut to a Massachusetts driver charged with killing seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire last June. A legislative oversight committee investigating the matter is rightly trying to get to the bottom of who knew what when about the backlog and how the state can prevent a similar failure in the future. But State Representative William Straus, who cochairs the Joint Committee on Transportation, said he has turned up information that suggests all relevant communications between state officials has not been turned over to lawmakers.
Here’s one example: On July 16, 2019, Lucy Spagnuolo of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation sent an e-mail with the subject line “Scanning and OOS [out-of-state] Processing,” raising questions about RMV software that tracks out-of-state traffic violations. “This is not an e-mail conversation. We will gather a meeting,” replied Mindy d’Arbeloff, deputy chief of staff to Baker, in an e-mail sent minutes later.
Straus said he obtained that e-mail chain from an outside source he has not identified. It was not among the nearly 1 million e-mails the Baker administration provided to lawmakers following written requests dated July 17 and Aug 6. Yet that specific communication does seem to fall under one of the specific requests made in the July 17 letter to DOT Secretary Stephanie Pollack.
In remarks to the press after Straus brought that July 16 e-mail chain to the media’s attention, Baker said d’Arbeloff’s call for a meeting showed the “urgency” given to the matter, and was not a way to avoid putting anything in writing. He also said if lawmakers want “documents they don’t believe they received from us, all they’ve got to do is ask.” Asked about Straus’s concerns that all relevant documents have not been handed over, a Baker spokesman sent this e-mailed response: “The administration has not received any requests of any kind from the Joint Committee since the Department of Transportation produced nearly 1 million documents, but the Department has offered several times to assist the committee with their search.”
While a million sounds like a lot, Straus said there are many duplicates and attachments of lengthy training manuals that don’t shed any light on internal management issues. To that end, Straus is also trying to get access to the interview notes of 41 people who were questioned by Grant Thornton LLP, the independent investigators from Chicago who were hired by the state to review the RMV breakdown. And he’s also seeking documents from meetings that were set up through a project management software program. The Baker administration said it has turned over everything it should. But there’s room for doubt, especially since the Boston Herald reported that more than 53,000 documents weren’t turned over to Grant Thornton investigators because they contained “legally privileged communication.”
Straus said he shouldn’t have to make any more written requests. “The existing two written requests from the joint committee are comprehensive and cover all the documents we are looking for. As a result, there isn’t a need to ask for or insist upon any additional requests from the committee.” He also notes that if the ultimate goal is disclosure and sharing of information in response to a tragedy, “shouldn’t the benefit of the doubt” bend toward disclosure?
Yes, it should. And the Baker administration, whose failures contributed to the New Hampshire tragedy, ought to be more forthcoming to the state legislators doing their part to make sure it doesn’t happen again.