Frustrated lawmakers abruptly end RMV oversight hearing

Committee wants more cooperation from Baker administration

This story was updated.

FRUSTRATED OVER THE lack of cooperation from the Baker administration on a legislative probe into extensive failures at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, lawmakers cut short their oversight hearing Monday morning, essentially telling Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack to come back when she had something to tell them.

An “extremely disappointed” House Speaker Robert DeLeo lent his support to lawmakers on Monday afternoon, calling upon “the Administration and MassDOT to participate in the Committee’s fact-finding process without exception or qualification.”

On Monday morning Pollack hardly got a word in edgewise as the co-chairmen of the Transportation Committee, Rep. William Straus and Sen. Joseph Boncore, admonished her for failing to produce documents or secure the appearance of key registry figures.

The procedural drama in the Gardner Auditorium, which was unique in the experiences of many there, played out in response to what may have been a preventable tragedy – the June deaths of seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire allegedly killed by Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, a commercial truck driver from Massachusetts whose license should have been suspended but was not. That safety lapse also brought to light more systematic failures where staff were stockpiling – but not opening or acting upon – thousands of notices from other states about driving infractions that should have led to suspensions.

In a July 17 letter – five days before the hearing – the committee asked for the administration to produce numerous documents and requested the appearance of Erin Deveney, who resigned as registrar in the days after the crash, along with Merit Rating Board director Thomas Bowes and Driver Control Unit director Keith Constantino, none of whom showed up Monday.

Straus appeared particularly irked by the fact that Bowes and Constantino, who still work for the state, failed to appear.

“They were given a choice – the choice is the key word here. They were given a choice as to whether they would appear,” Straus said of the administration’s handling of the request. “I don’t think it’s the administration’s choice to give their department heads a say.”

Pollack said her concern was about maintaining the integrity of a concurrent investigation into the matter by the auditing firm Grant Thornton, and said she would be happy to return to the committee with interim reports of findings, and make the final report public.

“This is not about whether we will be cooperating with the oversight of this committee. It’s about when,” Pollack said.

But that didn’t cut it for the bipartisan, bicameral group assembled to look into how and why the RMV failed to act on notices about out-of-state infractions by Bay State drivers.

About a half hour after the hearing began, Rep. Paul Tucker, a Salem Democrat and the city’s one-time police chief, declared that lawmakers’ inquiry into the problems at the registry were “equally as important” as Grant Thornton’s.

“I’m going to make a motion that we recess this hearing until such time as both the chairs of this committee are completely satisfied that the information that we have to do our jobs is made available to us,” Tucker said.

Rep. Paul Tucker criticized the decision by Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack to withhold documents from the Transportation Committee. (Photo by Andy Metzger)

Rep. David DeCoste, a Norwell Republican, seconded the motion, and after the chairmen briefly conferred, the committee voted unanimously to pull the plug on the hearing. Straus said there hadn’t been any pre-arranged agreement to break up the hearing like that, but when Tucker proposed doing so there “was a logic to it.”

In her prepared testimony, which MassDOT staff shared with reporters after the recess, Pollack also indicated that since the lapses were discovered last month, her primary focus has been on correcting the errors made at the RMV, not necessarily getting to the bottom of why they happened. She said Grant Thornton’s review began the week of July 8 and the firm is expected to provide final recommendations within 60 days.

The administration has been forthcoming about the scale of the problems at the RMV, disclosing that 1,607 drivers had their licenses suspended based on the information uncovered in the review. Pollack hasn’t tried to sugarcoat the problems that festered at an agency under her command, and indicated there will be more repercussions.

“I am not yet ready to talk in any detail about the people who failed to do their jobs and how they will be held accountable, but I assure you that day will come,” Pollack planned to tell the committee. Gov. Charlie Baker on Friday filed legislation seeking to tighten up the state’s handling of commercial drivers.

Baker is out of town for a meeting of the Republican Governors Association in Colorado. His communications director, Lizzy Guyton, emphasized Pollack’s plan to investigate and then share that information publicly. Meanwhile, DeLeo gave a full-throated endorsement of the committee’s approach.

“The constitutional authority and solemn responsibility of the Legislature to conduct oversight hearings—and demand full cooperation by government officials—are long recognized. The Legislature’s oversight role should not—and will not—be subjugated to that of an outside auditing firm. I applaud the committee’s professional discharge of its responsibilities in an effort to protect residents and determine what, if any, further legislative action is necessary,” DeLeo said in a statement Monday. “I am extremely disappointed by the lack of cooperation this morning by MassDOT. I am deeply troubled by the unacceptable, systemic failures at the RMV that have resulted in the need for today’s actions.”

Immediately after lawmakers recessed Monday’s hearing, Pollack struck a conciliatory tone but did not waver from her decision.

“I fully respect the authority of this committee to undertake its investigation. We also think it’s important for both our investigation and theirs that we have the time to assemble the documents, interview the witnesses and get to the bottom of what happened,” Pollack told reporters. “So we will continue to work with the committee to find a path forward that satisfies their needs but maintains the integrity of the Grant Thornton forensic audit.”

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack briefly spoke to reporters after an oversight hearing by the Transportation Committee was cut short. (Photo by Andy Metzger)

Pollack told the committee that she was worried what was said at Monday’s hearing could influence others’ testimony, and indicated that she and Acting Registrar Jamey Tesler would testify only about events that occurred after the security lapses were discovered.

“The integrity of Grant Thornton’s ongoing investigation might easily be cast into doubt if any MassDOT or RMV witnesses were to offer public statements at this time providing their own perhaps incompletely informed assessments of the RMV’s practices in handling of out of state violations as a general manner or in the specific instance of the Zhukovksyy [sic] case,” Pollack wrote in a letter to the committee dated Friday. “Further, any such statements might improperly influence the memories and later testimony of other witnesses, which could undermine the credibility of Grant Thornton’s review and ultimate findings.”

But Tucker countered that “in my estimation as an investigator, this bears on the very essence of why we needed live testimony today, to find out what these folks knew and when they knew it. Not 60 days from now, not 90 days from now.”

As the committee continues to seek answers, Straus said he would not rule out seeking subpoenas – though the committee does not now have the power to compel testimony.

In her letter, Pollack divided the documents requested into three categories – the type that the administration could swiftly hand over, more sensitive documents that would require time to “identify, gather, and review for data protected by privacy and other laws,” and other documents related to the forensic analysis, which cannot be shared until Grant Thornton’s review is complete.

“When the Grant Thornton review is complete, MassDOT and the RMV will make the audit’s findings and recommendations public and we would be happy to work with you and the committee to provide additional documents and even to participate in an additional hearing should you decide that one is appropriate at that time,” Pollack wrote in Friday’s letter.

Lawmakers’ frustration was not confined to administration officials. The committee had also requested the appearance of a representative for FAST Enterprises, the Colorado company that completed the registry’s transition from an ancient computer system to new technology called ATLAS capable of complying with the federal REAL ID requirements.

“It is FAST’s policy to not provide public testimony related to the work we perform for any of our government clients,” said James Harrison, a company leader, in a letter to the committee.

Straus took exception to that.

“Who are they to work under contract with the Commonwealth, to say that they have no obligation to speak to us?” Straus said. “It’s not right.”

The out-of-state notifications began piling up unread at RMV headquarters in March 2018, right around the time the agency switched from ALARS – which Pollack described as “a software system created in the time of black screens with green type, written in COBOL – a programming language dating back to the 1960s” – to ATLAS.

Straus clearly believes the two events are related, and he said he hoped to learn from FAST whether the ATLAS system had the capability of processing the information in those mailed-in paper notifications.

“When we switched to the ATLAS system, in March, late March of 2018, something appears to have seriously gone wrong in terms of electronic messages no longer being reviewed, mail not being looked at,” Straus said.

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Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

There is a second phase of ATLAS that is scheduled to be implemented by December, Pollack planned to tell the committee. Pollack’s testimony would also shed light on the extensive and ignominious driving record that Zhukovskyy racked up over the years.

“His driving history actually began before he was licensed, as he was cited [for] an accident in April 2012, before he even had his learner’s permit,” Pollack said in prepared testimony. “Less than two months after he received his license, as a 17-year-old Mr. Zhukovskyy caused another accident on June 16, 2014 and was found to be operating under the influence and in possession of alcohol in an open container.” After his license suspensions for those and other infractions ended, Zhukovskyy obtained a driver’s license in July 2017 and a commercial driver’s license in August 2018, according to Pollack, who said cited that timeline as good reason for more stringent rules for commercial drivers.