Officials within the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles grappled for years without success to clear chronic backlogs in the processing of notifications sent by other states of infractions by Massachusetts drivers, according to testimony on Tuesday at an oversight hearing prompted by a crash that killed seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire.
Members of the Legislature's transportation committee sought to learn why information that Volodymyr Zhukovskyy had been arrested for drunken driving in Connecticut weeks before the June 21 crash — which could have triggered a suspension of his commercial driver's license — was not acted upon by the Massachusetts agency.
Registry officials acknowledge that tens of thousands of such out-of-state notices have gone unprocessed for years, instead left to pile up in boxes stored in a state office.
"In the midst of all this, seven families experienced an unimaginable tragedy and they didn't deserve explanations or excuses," said Erin Devaney, in explaining Tuesday her decision to resign as head of the agency days after the New Hampshire crash exposed the lapses. "They deserved to have someone being accountable and acknowledge that the service that the registry of motor vehicles provided was unacceptable in this instance."
Devaney testified that when she was appointed by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker to lead the agency in 2015, no system existed for processing out-of-state notices. The following year she assigned the task to the Merit Rating Board, which historically has been responsible for reviewing in-state violations by Massachusetts drivers and imposing any insurance surcharges warranted.
While some progress was subsequently made in addressing the backlog, glitches during the installation of a new computer system at the registry in March 2018 prompted a decision to focus on the handling of in-state violations at the expense of out-of-state notices because the board could not "fix it all at the same time," Devaney said.
Brie-Anne Dwyer, an auditor with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which oversees the registry, testified that she told registry officials in March that she had discovered within the new computer system an "open queue" containing 12,899 unprocessed out-of-state notifications.
In an internal memo made public by the legislative committee, Dwyer said she asked Thomas Bowes, head of the Merit Rating Board, who was responsible for entering the information and that Bowes responded "nobody," explaining his department had not been given sufficient staff resources to address the backlog amid the ongoing computer issues.Asked hypothetically by one lawmaker if correcting the reporting issues promptly might have prevented the loss of life in the New Hampshire crash, Dwyer responded: "It's possible."
Registry officials have said an internal review prompted by the deadly crash has resulted in license suspensions for more than 1,600 Massachusetts motorists.
Zhukovskyy, 23, of West Springfield, Massachusetts, has pleaded not guilty to negligent homicide in connection with the crash. The seven who died in the collision with a pickup truck hauling a flatbed trailer were members of the Jarheads, a New England motorcycle club that includes Marines and their spouses.
The legislative panel heard testimony for more than seven hours Tuesday after its initial attempt to hold the hearing on July 22 was quickly suspended when the Baker administration declined to make certain officials available to testify, citing a desire not to interfere with an ongoing, independent audit of the registry.
On Monday, however, Baker told reporters that he expected any officials asked to appear before the committee to do so, and without any limitations on their testimony. Some Democrats have criticized Baker, claiming he failed to properly oversee the critical state agency.
Democratic Rep. William Strauss, the House chair of the committee, called the crash a "terrible tragedy" while acknowledging that the hearing would not alone resolve the complex issues involved.
"No one witness, no single document answers all the questions," Strauss said.
-- Bob Salsberg, Associated Press