Why didn’t Deveney sound the alarm?

Even in conference chat, RMV chief silent about problems

IN MID-MAY, Erin Deveney was at a regional conference of registrars when she bumped into Elizabeth Bielecki, her counterpart in New Hampshire. The two registrars started talking about information-sharing, and Deveney urged Bielecki to resume sending notifications to her office about Massachusetts drivers who commit violations in New Hampshire electronically rather than by mail.

“I didn’t have any authority to compel New Hampshire to resume their electronic sharing of information with Massachusetts,” Deveney told lawmakers at an oversight hearing last week. “I did raise it as an issue and concern with New Hampshire.”

But Deveney apparently did not mention why electronic notification was such a priority. She never revealed that her office wasn’t processing mailed notifications – that if New Hampshire continued sending the notices by mail, nothing would be done with them. “Ms. Deveney did not discuss any issue of a potential backlog or now known other problems associated with her troubled leadership at the RMV,” Bielecki said in a statement.

The passing conversation with Bielecki is a small thread in a large tapestry of missed opportunities for correcting the handling of out-of-state violation notices concerning Massachusetts drivers. The net effect of these missed opportunities was that the problems didn’t get the attention they required until Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, who should have had his license suspended after a drunken driving arrest in Connecticut, plowed a pickup truck and trailer into a group of motorcyclists in New Hampshire on Friday, June 21, killing seven.

Before her resignation, Deveney had the enormous responsibility of overseeing the state’s 5.2 million licensed drivers, but she had never quite figured out a good system for handling notices about infractions, both large and small, those drivers committed in other states. Starting in March 2018, the Registry had simply let those paper documents gather dust at the Quincy headquarters.

Erin Deveney, the former registrar of motor vehicles, testified before the Transportation Committee on July 30, 2019. (Photo by Andy Metzger)

After the dysfunction came to light this summer, the RMV under new leadership combed through about three tranches of previously ignored paperwork in roughly 16 days and suspended 1,607 drivers’ licenses.

On May 11, the Saturday before the regional conference Deveney attended with Bielecki, police in Connecticut pulled over Zhukovskyy, who refused to take a chemical test, which should have triggered an automatic license suspension. A commercial truck driver, Zhukovskyy fell under a slightly different licensing regime than most Massachusetts drivers, but, as with the paper mail, the electronic notice from Connecticut was ignored. It wound up in an email inbox that no one was assigned to read, according to Jamey Tesler, who is now the acting registrar.

The Baker administration has commissioned an audit by the firm Grant Thornton and preliminary findings are due next week. One question that hasn’t been answered publicly is whether any of the other 1,600 drivers caused trouble on the roads after the RMV failed to take their licenses away.

In the case of Zhukovskyy, even if the Registry had properly fielded the information from Connecticut and suspended his licenses, there is no guarantee that would have kept him off the road, Pollack noted in her testimony.

“This is a gentleman who was in fact suspended for part of 2013, all of 2014, and part of 2015, but was caught driving in Ohio during 2014 when his license was suspended,” Pollack said.

An element of this tragedy that must be particularly confounding for Gov. Charlie Baker and Pollack is that Deveney knew the notices were not properly handled before she even took the job as registrar in 2015. Had she raised that deficiency early in her tenure, Baker could have publicly identified the problem, blamed it on his predecessor, and avoided the heartbreak and scandal that is currently unfurling.

Soon after Baker took office in 2015, Pollack and others shone a spotlight on dysfunction within the MBTA, earning Baker credit for cleaning up the transit agency after years of neglect. Even when that meant tough questions – such as whether a trolley extension project should continue despite massive cost overruns – Pollack seemed forthright and open with the public about the decisions that needed to be made. It’s easy to imagine the mess at the RMV going a different way.

DUTIFULLY IGNORED

In August 2015, soon after Keith Costantino took over the Registry’s Driver Control Unit, he started sifting through boxes of paper, and discovered that “comingled with other mail” were notifications from other states about infractions Massachusetts drivers had committed.

The Driver Control Unit lacked the staffing or the expertise to handle such a large stream of information, and in fact no one was assigned to process it, according to Costantino.

Keith Costantino, the leader of the Driver Contrul Unit, testified before the Transportation Committee on July 30, 2019. (Photo by Andy Metzger)

That was not a surprise to Deveney, who held a variety of administrative roles at the RMV dating back to 2000. Deveney worked her way up from legal counsel to general counsel before leaving in 2005, and then returned in 2009, serving as chief of staff until 2014. Baker had brought her on in an interim basis in March 2015 and, in December 2015, the administration dropped the interim label.

“Since my first employment with the Registry of Motor Vehicles in September of 2000, I am not aware of any prior effort to process and enter paper violations that were received by the Registry of Motor Vehicles regarding out-of-state violations,” Deveney told the Transportation Committee oversight hearing last week.

In 2016, Costantino got a better idea of the size of the backlog, which stretched back years, and he proposed assigning the Merit Rating Board to handle the paperwork, because that agency, which like his was part of the RMV, was already equipped to process citations from Massachusetts police departments.

In an undated and unsigned memo, Costantino was upfront about the implications of the existing procedural lapse, estimated that the backlog included thousands of outstanding license suspension notices from around the country. He said the backlog put the Registry in a “precarious position” and “seriously jeopardizes public safety.”

On Monday, Oct. 3, 2016, Costantino met with Deveney and two days later he sent her a draft memo intended for delivery to the legal teams in Baker’s office and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation about the situation. Avoiding the more alarmist language in the other memo, the draft said the Registry has “secured the financial and human resources to meet this data entry backlog challenge,” estimated it will be completed in three to six months, and confidently asserted that “an expeditious resolution is at hand.”

The memo was dated that Friday, Oct. 7, but never delivered, according to Pollack who maintains she was kept in the dark about the problem. October 2016 was a busy time for the Registry, which was figuring out how to issue licenses compliant with the federal REAL ID law and had on Oct. 6 reached agreement on a $62 million contract for Fast Enterprises to build a new ATLAS computer system, replacing the ancient one that had been in operation for decades.

Costantino didn’t just estimate the size of the backlog. He sent photos at some point to Deveney, Merit Rating Board Director Tom Bowes, and another Registry official, showing the72 boxes of unprocessed paper neatly stacked in an RMV office.

Rep. William Straus, the House chairman of the Transportation Committee, has expressed skepticism that word of the procedural logjam wasn’t elevated beyond the Registry. In fact, officials at the Division of Insurance, which is within the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, were apparently consulted by Registry officials about the insurance implications.

On Feb. 23, 2017, Bowes told Costantino about his meeting with the division, indicating in an email that the consensus was to only process notices of violations going six months rather than dealing with the entire backlog.

“A large focus of concern appeared to be the insurance premium impact of old citations suddenly being applied to driver records, and decisions were made about going back only six months because of surcharges suddenly appearing on people’s records,” Pollack said last Tuesday.

The job was moved out of Costantino’s hands to the Merit Rating Board. The boxes themselves?

“They were picked up for warehousing,” Costantino told the committee.

Bowes, a Braintree politician with a background in the insurance industry who is currently running for mayor, quickly found his plate full.

Around April 2017, the Merit Rating Board had begun handling incoming notifications, according to Pollack, who said Bowes drafted, but never sent, an email intended for Deveney reporting that by February 2018 his office was struggling with a backlog stretching back seven or eight months.

Bowes, who had assigned two staff members to the out-of-state notifications, told the committee the backlog was in the three-to-four-month range by March 2018, and suggested a lack of resources might be partially to blame.

“They knew that I was looking to backfill some of the positions but there was a headcount freeze on them,” Bowes said.

Pressed repeatedly on the veracity of that claim, Deveney told lawmakers, “I don’t recall using the term hiring freeze.”

Pollack disputed the idea that lack of staff or funding was the cause of the Registry’s problems, noting that processing of tickets from the biggest police departments – Boston and the State Police – had been automated in recent years, reducing the paperwork.

Regardless, the backlog got exponentially worse after March 2018.

Before officials at the Registry switched over to the ATLAS system in late March 2018, the Merit Rating Board was locked-out from entering data for more than a week, and a significant backlog developed in processing citations sent in from authorities in Massachusetts, according to Bowes.

With Deveney’s blessing, Bowes focused on churning through the Massachusetts violations first. Even though Bowes’s team accomplished that goal by the summer of 2018, the out-of-state paper notifications continued to be ignored.

“I don’t profess that it was an ideal decision to be made, but the focus and attention was on making sure that we were properly recording the public safety violations in-state first to work to restore that stability and then resume processing these additional notices,” Deveney told lawmakers, saying she took responsibility for those decisions.

Pollack said she believes now that the Registry ignored the out-of-state paper notices out of an “institutional belief that this was not a serious safety problem” because the Commercial Driver Licensing Information System automatically processed commercial drivers’ licenses and the National Driver Registry could handle serious offenses requiring suspension – at least when a driver’s license came up for periodic renewal or the driver had some other interaction with the RMV.

“We now see clearly that neither CDLIS nor the National Driver Registry is a substitute for the work that is the Registry’s responsibility,” Pollack said.

Another bitter lesson from the other side of this tragedy: It took the Registry less than three weeks to triage and address the most serious offenses in the unprocessed paperwork after the lapse was discovered this summer.

Once the RMV returned its attention to those notices this past June, officials found 53 bins of unprocessed paperwork dating back to March 2018, another five bins that date back further, and the 72 boxes shipped off to warehousing with notices that date back to 2011, Tesler said.

SOUND THE ALARM

Deveney knew the RMV had fallen down on its responsibilities to process out-of-state paperwork before she even took the job, and was kept apprised of the situation while at the helm of the agency. In the months since March 2018 when the Registry decided to stop processing the paper notices altogether, she got numerous warnings about the problem.

In response to a 2018 review by Auditor Suzanne Bump finding fault with the Merit Rating Board’s data practices, Deveney asked for an internal audit of the agency. In January 2019, Brie-Anne Dwyer, a veteran Registry employee newly assigned to the audit unit, began looking into it and soon discovered a backlog of 12,829 unaddressed items in the queue for out-of-state convictions – which represented about 2,500 notices that had been scanned but not adjudicated, according to Pollack.

Brie-Anne Dwyer, an internal auditor for the Registry of Motor Vehicles, testified before the Transportation Committee in July 2019. (Photo by Andy Metzger)

Dwyer briefed Deveney about that on March 14, 2019, and expected there would be some follow-through. There was, but only the most cursory kind. Bowes asked an IT professional about it, but couldn’t find the answer and dropped the subject.

“You asked one IT person and that was the end of it?” an incredulous Sen. Eric Lesser asked Bowes during the oversight hearing.

“Yes,” Bowes replied.

On April 29, a psychologist specializing in addiction wrote to Deveney expressing a concern he had noticed with his clients who were caught driving while intoxicated in New Hampshire but allowed to keep their Massachusetts licenses.

On May 6, Fred Apel, the RMV’s ombudsman, shared the letter with others, including Donna Cabey, a longtime employee of the Merit Rating Board.

Sound the alarm,” she responded.

That afternoon, Deveney recalled, Apel came to see her about it.

The next week, Deveney apparently attended a regional conference of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators in coastal Maryland where, ironically, she was scheduled to participate in a panel discussion about data sharing.

It was there that Deveney met Bielecki. If she had been more forthcoming, Deveney could have said that New Hampshire’s process was such a concern because all that paper – about Massachusetts residents driving drunk and committing other infractions – wasn’t having any effect on their Massachusetts driver’s licenses.

But the alarm bell wasn’t rung. Word of the Registry’s dysfunction wasn’t shared widely. Meanwhile, Zhukovskyy was continuing a pattern of behavior that should have resulted in authorities yanking away his commercial driver’s license. On May 29, Connecticut sent Massachusetts electronic notification about the commercial driver’s license suspension, and also sent information via FedEx. But before anyone in Massachusetts acted upon that information, Zhukovskyy wound up in a flaming wreck that ended the lives of seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire. The Boston Globe reported Zhukovskyy was allegedly on a narcotic or amphetamine and reaching for a drink on the passenger side of his Dodge pickup just before the crash, according to a report by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

“Make no mistake: The deficiencies within the Massachusetts RMV under the leadership of Ms. Deveney resulted in the horrific crash in Randolph,” Benjamin Vihstadt, a spokesman for New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu told the Globe.

Meet the Author

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.

Deveney, who appeared voluntarily before the Transportation Committee last week, resigned her position soon after glimpsing the extent of her agency’s failures.

“I consulted with team members to find the immediate way that that problem could be rectified, and within the course of 24 hours we looked at all of the existing out-of-state violation electronic notices that had been received and made sure that they were processed,” Deveney told the committee. “Notwithstanding that fact, in the midst of all this, seven families experienced an unimaginable tragedy, and they didn’t deserve explanations or excuses. They deserved to have someone be accountable and acknowledge that the service that the Registry of Motor Vehicles provided was unacceptable in this instance. And for that reason I tendered my resignation.”