Numerous warnings about ignored RMV notices
Pollack says she and the governor never learned of the problems
THERE WAS HARDLY ever a time when the Registry of Motor Vehicles properly handled paper notices about out-of-state driving infractions, according to the former registrar Erin Deveney’s testimony before lawmakers on Tuesday.
Over seven hours, Deveney and current Baker administration officials described for the Transportation Committee a shifting and confused stance toward mailed-in notices about driving violations committed by Bay State drivers in other jurisdictions. The testimony suggested the officials were aware the information wasn’t being processed properly but did little or nothing to address the problem or even communicate it to superiors outside the agency.
A memorandum dated October 7, 2016, from Deveney and two other officials at the Registry to the legal departments in Gov. Charlie Baker’s office and at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation referred to a backlog of paper-based out-of-state citations that would take three to six months to address. But Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told the committee that there is no evidence the memo was ever sent and she said neither she nor the governor was notified.
An April 3 preliminary audit of the Merit Rating Board, an agency within the Registry, indicated electronic notices of violations received from other states were piling up in a queue of the Registry’s computer system, but no action was being taken to deal with them. According to Pollack, no one at the agency communicated the problem to her.
“I am alerting you to a problem where my Massachusetts patients who have had DWIs in New Hampshire are not having their MA licenses revoked,” the psychologist wrote after calling and emailing the Registry to no avail. Systems triggering such revocations “have ALWAYS been employed in the past, but there has been a change in the past 8 months, or roughly since the new licenses have been instituted,” the psychologist wrote.
The Registry’s haphazard approach to the out-of-state notices came to a deadly head on June 21, when Massachusetts resident Volodymyr Zhukovskyy allegedly crashed into a group of motorcyclist in New Hampshire, killing seven of them. Zhukovskyy should have had his commercial driver’s license suspended at the time, after being charged with drunken driving in Connecticut in May. Notifications from Connecticut to Massachusetts about Zhukovskyy’s drunken driving arrest were missed by the Registry.
The handling of Zhukovskyy’s license and the fallout from the crash prompted Deveney’s resignation, a deep dive into problems at the Registry by the Baker administration, and the initiation of an outside audit of the agency. Lawmakers scheduled an oversight hearing on the Registry last week, but the hearing was called off after administration officials did not fully cooperate, citing the ongoing audit. The Baker administration reversed course over the last week and the marathon seven-hour hearing took place as scheduled on Tuesday.
Several lawmakers said after the hearing that they were stunned at the dysfunction within the agency and the failure of the Baker administration to learn about it, let alone deal with it.
“You could see in our questioning, certainly from many members of the committee, was a skepticism if you will, or a surprise, that this level of procedural and management failures within the Registry was pretty much unknown to anyone else in state government,” said Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, the co-chair of the Transportation Committee.
He said it was very interesting that an audit of the agency raised all sorts of red flags that were not passed up the hierarchy of state government. “There seemed to be a disconnect there,” he said.
Sen. Eric Lesser of Longmeadow, the vice chair of the committee, said many people at the Registry seemed aware of the problem with out-of-state violation notices but no one did anything to address it. “It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out there were some major systemic issues up and down the food chain and I think there’s a lot of unanswered questions about just how serious it was,” he said.
When the Registry upgraded its computer system in March 2018, enabling the issuance of licenses compliant with the federal REAL ID law, the out-of-state notices were completely ignored. They piled up at the Registry’s Quincy headquarters without any action taken in response to them. Since the problems with Zhukofvskyy’s license were discovered, the Registry has suspended the licenses of 1,607 drivers.
Thomas Bowes, the chief of the Merit Rating Board, another agency within the Registry that had been tasked with processing the paper notices, said that, after the computer system overhaul, he and Deveney both knew that no one was paying attention to the notices. Bowes and others had opted to focus instead on a backlog of in-state violations that had cropped up during the computer overhaul.
What became clear at the oversight hearing Tuesday was that officials did not merely stumble across the bins of ignored notices in Quincy, some dating to 2011. There were ample warnings, including the preliminary reports of an internal audit that turned up nearly 13,000 “open tasks” in an RMV queue for handling out-of-state convictions.
On April 3, Brie-Anne Dwyer, who is continuing to work on an audit of the Merit Rating Board, issued a written memo warning officials about the 12,829 unaddressed items. Yet there was no immediate action to deal with that backlog of information about Massachusetts motorists, many of whom had made such serious violations that they should have lost their right to drive. Pollack said the unaddressed items represented 2,500 out-of-state driver violation notifications.
Driver Control Unit Director Keith Costantino emailed around a photo showing boxes of unprocessed paper notices. Bowes testified that he asked for more staff to handle the work but was told there were “headcount freezes.”
“The obligation that the Registry had was not to simply say that staff was the answer to all problems,” Deveney said when asked about the “headcount freezes” during her more than two hours of testimony Tuesday.
Many lawmakers, citing the comment of Bowes, questioned whether staffing was the real issue at the Registry.
Pollack disagreed, saying money and staffing appeared to be adequate. She noted the Registry’s budget has risen from $90 million in fiscal year 2016 to $110 million in fiscal 2019, with the number of full time equivalent employees rising from 700 to 775 over that time period. At the Merit Rating Board, she said funding went from $9.5 million in fiscal 2017 to $10.4 million in fiscal 2019.
Straus turned her answer around on her, questioning whether the agency was being supervised properly if it had adequate money and staff.
Pollack said the question of supervision still needs to be addressed through the ongoing audit by the firm Grant Thornton.
Straus said after the hearing that someone had to communicate to Deveney a policy about prioritizing resources.“Where does that policy come from – that if you have limited resources you put them in certain areas and not others?” Straus asked. “When a public safety function wasn’t, in the parlance, prioritized, I just doubt that came only from the registrar. There must be somewhere else up the food chain where that philosophy was communicated to the Registry.”