Testimony Shows Disarray Within Mass. RMV Over Driver Violations
The former Massachusetts Registrar of Motor Vehicles said Tuesday that her agency had no policy for taking action against drivers for out-of-state violations until 2016.
Other employees revealed that there had been multiple warnings within the RMV about backlogs of tens of thousands of notices that prompted little or no action.
And the secretary of transportation testified she was not aware until recent weeks — after the RMV failed to heed one of those warnings and a driver who should have had his commercial license suspended allegedly caused a fatal crash — that her own subordinates had deemed the situation not a safety problem.
Through more than seven hours of questioning, the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Transportation's oversight hearing uncovered a pattern of dysfunction within the RMV even deeper than what officials have described as the scandal has unfolded in recent weeks.
One committee member, Republican Rep. David DeCoste, tweeted mid-hearing that the questioning revealed "an inept bureaucracy disinterested in public safety." Another, Democratic Sen. Eric Lesser, said every witness "seem[ed] to tell us a different story about what happened."
"What was concerning to me was about the different testimony we heard from different people in different management roles at the Registry and all the way up through the Department of Transportation was the lack of any real standard operating procedures," said Sen. Joseph Boncore, one of the committee's chairs. "There were pretty clear systematic failures of MassDOT and the Registry."
Scrutiny on the RMV has been intense since late June, when Volodymyr Zhukovskyy of West Springfield allegedly crashed his truck into a group of motorcyclists in New Hampshire, killing seven. State officials acknowledged after the tragedy that they should have suspended Zhukovskyy's commercial license because of his OUI arrest in Connecticut a month earlier, but failed to act on electronic and paper notifications from that state.
Former Registrar Erin Deveney resigned amid the fallout, and an internal investigation launched by interim Registrar Jamey Tesler soon determined that tens of thousands of written alerts from other states about Massachusetts drivers — warning about citations and arrests ranging from drunk driving to speeding — had piled up in a storage room since at least March 2018.
The Registry, which has also been failing to notify other states about citations within Massachusetts, suspended standard licenses of more than 1,600 drivers based on those documents.
That backlog was not an isolated incident, according to answers given at Tuesday's hearing, but specific details offered by different witnesses were often contradictory. For example, while Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the responsibility for handling out-of-state notices rested with the RMV's Driver Control Unit until the fall of 2016, Deveney told the committee she was "not aware of any prior effort" to process printed violation notices from other states before 2016.
"There were no resources specifically directed to handle that process," Deveney said. "There were no standard operating procedures. And that's what we endeavored to take on: a way to address what was up until that point an unmet business need."
In 2016, prompted by his discovery of a three-year backlog containing roughly 10,000 notices in a document library, Driver Control Unit head Keith Constantino proposed moving the task to the Merit Rating Board, a data-entry division that officials said already worked to manually enter printed in-state citations into a database.
His idea was endorsed by Deveney, and in October of that year, the two and Merit Rating Board Director Thomas Bowes drafted a memorandum to attorneys at the Department of Transportation and in Gov. Charlie Baker's office explaining the proposal.
But, according to Pollack, the group implemented the change without ever sending the message to notify administration higher-ups.
While the draft memo called for working through the backlog, several officials testified that the Merit Rating Board never made substantial progress with those tens of thousands dropped on it in 2016. Different reasons were given: Pollack told lawmakers that part of the reason was concern about drivers seeing insurance premiums spike for years-old violations, while Bowes said he was not given any additional staff to handle the added responsibility.
Another crucial junction came in March 2018, when the Registry formally switched its decades-old software to a new system called ATLAS that could comply with federal REAL ID requirements.
Staff in Bowes's department experienced 10 days when they could not use the system properly, and by the time they had full access, more than 25,000 citations issued in Massachusetts needed to be addressed in addition to out-of-state notices.
At that time, he and Deveney decided to direct employees to work through the in-state notices, viewing them as more important — but they never looped back around to revisit written alerts from other states, instead allowing them to build up until discovery as the crisis unfolded.
"I didn't have the manpower for out-of-state," Bowes said.
Bowes was initially invited to testify last week, but did not show up, prompting the committee to recess until it could get full participation. Asked by Sen. Eric Lesser why he did not attend, Bowes said he was told by the Department of Transportation legal team that witnesses would only discuss RMV actions from July 1 onward in response to the crisis, not the circumstances leading up to it.
Those restrictions on testimony were dropped by the administration for Tuesday's hearing.
Several red flags were also apparent inside the department this year ahead of the New Hampshire crash, witnesses said.
MassDOT auditor Brie-Anne Dwyer began examining the Merit Rating Board in January, and she found in March that more than 12,000 unprocessed out-of-state notifications — unrelated to the commercial system where Zhukovskyy's warning was found — sat unattended in a digital RMV inbox. Pollack later said some were duplicates and that the total number of unique items was about 2,500.
She asked Bowes who in his department was responsible for supervising the out-of-state notifications and, Dwyer told the committee, "He stated, 'Nobody.'"
"I felt that this is very important," Dwyer said. "There were people out there on the roads that shouldn't be."
Dwyer drafted an interim report in April warning of the buildup, and she said Bowes, her direct superior and Deveney were all notified. But she was unsure how much her recommendations had been implemented beyond an agreement to transfer oversight of the out-of-state notices back to the Merit Rating Board — a move Bowes said he was unaware of.
Another warning came later that month, this one from outside the RMV. In a letter dated April 29, a psychologist who treats addiction told Deveney that several of his clients who had been arrested on drunk-driving charges in New Hampshire had not had their Massachusetts licenses suspended in an apparent departure from past practices.
The letter circulated inside the RMV. One employee called it a "definite public safety concern." A second, replying in an email chain that lawmakers reviewed, said officials should "sound the alarm."
But despite those hints, Pollack told the committee that word never escaped the RMV's core leadership about potential problems and that she only learned about the years of record-keeping failures "on the day the registrar resigned."
"It appears that until recently there was an institutional belief that this was not a serious safety problem," Pollack wrote in testimony alongside her remarks.
Lawmakers expressed frustration with that attitude, and some argued that the RMV's emphasis on improving customer service drew crucial resources away from managing back-end issues crucial to monitoring violations.
"When a public safety function wasn't in the parlance prioritized, I just doubt that came only from the registrar," committee co-chair Rep. William Straus told reporters after the hearing. "There must be somewhere else up the food chain where that philosophy was communicated to the registry."
An outside review by audit firm Grant Thornton is expected to wrap up during the week of August 12.
This report was originally published by State House News Service.