Bowes out at RMV’s Merit Rating Board

Attorney says his client is being made scapegoat

THOMAS BOWES was publicly fired Tuesday and jettisoned from an executive position within the Registry of Motor Vehicles where he had allowed thousands of infraction notifications to pile up unaddressed from out-of-state.

Revelations about the immense backlog at the Merit Rating Board, where Bowes was director, came about during an internal review at the RMV, which had failed to suspend a commercial truck driver’s license who allegedly slammed into a group of motorcyclists in New Hampshire, killing seven.

Bowes was fired by the Merit Rating Board, where he had served as director. The three-person board had not met since before Bowes was hired, and there is no official word on when the board last convened.

Glenn Kaplan, who is the attorney general’s representative on the board, said he had on multiple occasions requested meetings of the board that oversees administrative staff who enter driver record data. Gary Anderson, the commissioner of insurance and a member of the board, declined to say after the meeting whether he had made similar requests, referring a reporter to communications staff, who did not provide an answer to that question by late Tuesday afternoon.

Jamey Tesler, the acting registrar, is the third member of the board and its chairman. On Tuesday, the board delegated Tesler to select an interim director to serve for up to two months and made plans to meet again to go over the job description for a permanent replacement for Bowes.

Leonard Kesten, Bowes’s attorney, said it was “unfortunate that what they’ve decided to do is look for scapegoats.”

Tesler said Bowes was fired to bring in new leadership for the future tasks of the Merit Rating Board.

Erin Deveney, the former registrar of motor vehicles, preceded Bowes out the door, but did so willingly, resigning soon after discovering that the RMV had failed to suspend the license of Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, the Massachusetts truck driver who is now facing charges in the deaths of the seven bikers.

During an earlier hearing before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, Bowes and Deveney indicated they decided to put off handling of out-of-state paper notifications after some complications with the introduction of a new computer system at the RMV.

Tesler would only say that it had been “some time” since the last meeting of the Merit Review Board. Kaplan, who encouraged the board to meet regularly in the future, said the Merit Rating Agency had taken on the task of processing out-of-state paper notifications without the direction of the board, after the last meeting of the board.

State law gives the oversight board responsibility for appointing a director, but Bowes, a former insurance industry professional, took over as director on July 3, 2016, well after the last meeting of the board, according to the attorney general’s office, which said its records indicate the last meeting was held in October 2015. The attorney general’s representative was not asked to vote on Bowes’s appointment, according to the office. A Massachusetts Department of Transportation spokesman said the agency understands Bowes was hired by Deveney.

”From the beginning, I’ve expressed disappointment in the lack of leadership, management and accountability by the Administration concerning the RMV. Today’s removal of Thomas Bowes as director of the Merit Rating Board is a step in the right direction,” Attorney General Maura Healey said in a statement. “We are dedicated to appointing a qualified and experienced new director as quickly as possible. However, it’s clear that the Baker Administration must make systemic changes at the RMV and in its oversight of the agency.”

Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, had called for Bowes’s resignation a day after grilling him about his lackluster response to an internal audit that discovered a backlog of thousands of out-of-state notifications in a computer queue earlier this year.

Because of the long-neglected governance structure of the Merit Rating Board, a public body that is statutorily directed to conduct much of its business in plain view, Bowes’s termination was remarkably on full display. Before a bank of television cameras, Bowes addressed his three superiors, expressing remorse for the tragedy and accepting “full responsibility for the role my department played in this event.”

“We all wish that the system had worked,” said Bowes.

“Based on everything we learned over the past few weeks, the Merit Rating Board needs to head in a different direction and I believe that it requires new leadership,” said Tesler, after Bowes concluded his statement.

After the unanimous vote to terminate him, Bowes went down the escalator of the Transportation Building while his lawyer stuck around to speak on his behalf and field reporters’ questions.

“There were multiple failures, which took years to happen,” Kesten said. “To throw the man out at age 55 abruptly – it’s unfortunate.”

Bowes has been a candidate for mayor in Braintree, but Kesten said he is unaware whether Bowes is continuing that campaign. Bowes previously told lawmakers he found out about the “situation” at the RMV just as he was boarding a flight to England – part of a swing through the British isles that he and his wife had planned for their 30-year anniversary. Bowes said that within 48 hours he was in touch with Tesler and he subsequently “made a decision to cut my trip short to get back here to help out my staff.”

On Tuesday Kesten said Bowes had been expecting to be fired and there would be no legal challenge to the decision. Kesten also suggested that Bowes’s superiors – Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and Gov. Charlie Baker – deserve a good share of the blame.

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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’s a failure in leadership up and down – all the way up. A good leader takes the blame and moves on to fix it. That’s what leadership is about,” Kesten said. “You say, ‘I screwed up. Let me fix it,’ not let me get rid of a couple of people that work for me.”

Kesten said the electronic notification system that should have resulted in the suspension of Zhukovskyy’s license was not Bowes’s responsibility. Bowes had brought his concerns about the inability to keep up with the out-of-state paper to Deveney, Kesten told reporters. When asked why Bowes didn’t elevate it to the governor’s attention when the registrar failed to take any action, he scoffed, “Find me somebody that does that.”