AS POLICYMAKERS INVESTIGATE how things could have gone so wrong at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday suggested the problems long preceded his administration while a state senator called for the resignation of at least one official who allowed notices to pile up without dealing with them.
On Tuesday Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, led Merit Rating Board Director Tom Bowes through a devastating review of his lack of attention to the unaddressed backlog of out-of-state notices about infractions committed by Massachusetts drivers.
Less than 24 hours later Lesser declared that Bowes has “lost the confidence of the public” and called for his resignation.
Erin Deveney, the former registrar, resigned last month after top officials began to grasp the extent of mismanagement at the agency tasked with licensing motorists. The problems became apparent after Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, a Massachusetts truck driver, allegedly crashed into motorcyclists in New Hampshire, killing seven. Weeks before the crash, Connecticut officials had alerted Massachusetts that Zhukovskyy had been charged with intoxicated driving, but that notice and others like it went ignored by Bay State officials.
During his testimony before the Transportation Committee on Tuesday, Bowes described how he assigned two staff to handle out-of-state notifications from some time in 2016 until March 2018, when the RMV upgraded its computer system and he allowed the mailed-in notifications to pile up unaddressed.
Under questioning by Lesser, Bowes described the minimal effort he made to look into a backlog discovered by an internal auditor of 12,829 unaddressed items in a queue of out-of-state notifications.
“So as the person in charge when an auditor came to you and said, ‘Sir, we have 12,829 open tasks in basically unread notifications in an area you’re responsible for,’ what was your response?” Lesser asked.
“That I was not aware of those tasks because the Merit Rating Board has not scanned any out-of-state documents,” Bowes responded.
“And did you ask for help?” Lesser followed-up.
“I have asked one of our IT folks what that might have been,” Bowes said. “The person didn’t seem to have the answer for me.”
“So did you ask anyone else after the IT person clarified it for you?” Lesser asked.
“I have not,” Bowes said.
“You asked one IT person and that was the end of it?” Lesser summarized.
“Yes,” Bowes confirmed.
Baker, who has presented himself as more of a competent steward for state government bureaucracy than a bold visionary, on Wednesday claimed that the mailed-in notifications had been ignored by the RMV dating back to at least the Cellucci administration.
“I was first made aware of the discrepancy on this on the day that the registrar resigned,” said Baker, who called it “absolutely incredible” that no one had been looking at the out-of-state notifications for more than 20 years.
During the Baker administration, the responsibility for handling those notices was shifted from the Driver Control Unit to the Merit Rating Board, which are agencies within the RMV, in 2016, and then ignored starting in March 2018.
The problem certainly preceded Bowes, who is now running for mayor of Braintree and who worked in the insurance industry before joining the Baker administration in 2016. Keith Costantino, who leads the Driver Control Unit, showed Bowes and Deveney a photo of 72 boxes stacked up – part of an earlier backlog of ignored out-of-state notices.
In 2018, State Auditor Suzanne Bump issued a report on the Merit Rating Board, and while it didn’t specifically identify any problems with the handling of out-of-state notifications, it did highlight the agency’s lack of a data inventory process, and said the agency is “not aware of what data could be missing or lost.”
The Baker administration is still awaiting a preliminary report from audit firm Grant Thornton, which is due the week of Aug. 12, documenting the failures that led to the systemic failure. Baker’s characterization of the longstanding inattention to the notices meshes with what Deveney told lawmakers on Tuesday. The former registrar claimed that before she took over in 2015, no one at the Registry had paid attention to the paper out-of-state notices about infractions committed by Massachusetts drivers.
Tuesday’s hearing occurred about a week after an aborted convening of the Transportation Committee where Bowes, Deveney, and a couple other witnesses were no-shows.
“Why didn’t you appear at the first hearing?” Lesser asked.
Bowes responded that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s legal team told him the administration planned to testify only about what occurred after July 1 – a few days after Deveney’s resignation.
Lesser asked if Bowes wanted to testify.
“If I was asked I would have,” Bowes said.
“Well you were asked. The committee sent a request to you,” Lesser responded.
“I did not get a request directly,” Bowes countered.
When Lesser pressed further, contending that Bowes could still provide relevant information because he remains in charge of the Merit Rating Board, Bowes said that handling the out-of-state notifications is “not in my shop” anymore.
Lesser on Wednesday assailed Bowes as the official “most directly responsible for ensuring that these records were processed fully and in a timely manner.”
“Mr. Bowes was alerted multiple times, by multiple state entities, from the State Auditor to a MassDOT internal auditor to other officials at the RMV, that there were boxes of unprocessed documents that could put public safety at risk, and he failed to act,” Lesser said. “Mr. Bowes has lost the confidence of the public that he can continue in his current role, and he should resign.”
While the auditor’s 2018 report did highlight some deficiencies in the Merit Rating Board’s handling of data, it did not specifically identify boxes of unprocessed documents that could put public safety at risk.