Straus raises alarms on RMV probe

Cites documents not provided by governor, but it’s unclear what they show

A correction has been added to this story.

THE HOUSE CHAIR of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee raised concerns on Tuesday that the Baker administration was withholding documents sought as part of the panel’s investigation of the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett also said three internal documents he obtained from sources outside the Baker administration suggest that the governor, or at least his office, was aware of ongoing problems at the RMV earlier than he has claimed. The documents themselves are difficult to decipher, as Straus acknowledged.

The Transportation Committee is investigating what went wrong at the Registry to cause a huge backlog in the processing of out-of-state driving violations. The issue came to light publicly in June, after Registrar Erin Devaney stepped down in the wake of a horrific June 21 traffic accident in New Hampshire involving a Bay State driver who should have had his commercial driver’s license suspended because of a drunk driving violation and license revocation in Connecticut that was never processed in Massachusetts.

The Registry’s own investigation has revealed that thousands of drivers who committed violations in other states never lost their licenses in Massachusetts.

Baker has said he was not aware of any problem at the Registry until Devaney resigned on June 25.

Straus has raised concerns over the last few days about the Baker administration’s compliance with the Transportation Committee’s document requests. The committee has asked for and received nearly a million pages of documents related to the issue. Straus said three emails have come to him separately, all of them listing Mindy d’Arbeloff, the governor’s deputy chief of customer service and constituent affairs, as either the writer or a recipient. D’Arbeloff is a long-time personal friend of the governor’s and her husband, James Peyser, is the secretary of education.

Two of the emails are dated July 16, 2019, well after the governor said he became aware of problems at the Registry. The emails are technical in nature dealing with how to process out-of-state driving violations. D’Arbeloff is a recipient of the first email and then four minutes later responds, saying: “This is not an email conversation. We will gather a meeting.”

Straus said the email from d’Arbeloff, who used the deputy chief of staff title in one of the emails, seemed designed to shield problems at the Registry from public scrutiny. But it was unclear from the emails whether that was her intention or whether the subject was just too technical in nature to handle via email. (Correction: This story originally said Straus had mistakenly referred to d’Arbeloff as deputy chief of staff when in fact d’Arbeloff did that in one of her emails.)

The third email is dated July 2, 2018, well before the governor has said he became aware of any problem at the RMV. A list of 46 people are shown as recipients – all but three of them Department of Transportation employees. One of the three is D’Arbeloff, the only representative from the governor’s office.

The email is about “release notes” for two software changes to the RMV’s computer system. A brief description of the update says “system not preventing drivers with lifetime disqualify events on driving history from obtaining CDL permits.” CDL is a reference to commercial driver’s license.

It’s hard to tell from the document released by Straus whether the July 2, 2018, email was talking about out-of-state driving violations or just a software update that had little to do with the breakdown at the Registry other than the fact it dealt with commercial driver’s licenses.

Aside from Straus’s concern that his committee was not receiving all the documents it has requested, he was asked whether the new emails suggest the governor was aware of the problems at the RMV earlier than he has stated.

“I really don’t know,” Straus said.

So, he was asked, the new documents don’t prove that?

“They certainly indicate that to me,” he said, adding that he preferred to think of a benign reason for the administration failing to provide all the requested documents. But then he admitted he hadn’t been able to come up with a benign reason.

“No, I haven’t,” he said. “If someone can come up with one, maybe the administration, we can evaluate it. But in the absence of a benign reason, then I begin to think this was intentional.  I can’t tell you it’s intentional because then I’d be in the mind of someone.”

D’Arbeloff also showed up in a separate review of the RMV by the auditing firm Grant Thornton. The Grant Thornton report said Devaney had communicated well before the New Hampshire accident the difficulties the agency was having in dealing with a new computer system to D’Arbeloff as well as Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and two of her aides. D’Arbeloff told Grant Thornton she didn’t remember the communication from Devaney and Pollack said she was aware of issues with the computer system but nothing specific to the backlog of out-of-state driving violations.

Straus said D’Arbeloff was the only official in the administration who was interviewed by Grant Thornton who brought along an attorney from the governor’s office.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Straus said more documents related to the RMV problems that were not provided by the Baker administration are being funneled to him and his committee by a variety of sources. “I’m getting more,” he said.

Jacqueline Goddard, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Department, said the agency has not been contacted by Straus’s committee directly about missing documents and is only hearing questions via the press. “MassDOT will continue to work with the committee on any requests to assist their investigation,” she said.