BOSTON (SHNS) – The House Transportation Committee chair said Wednesday that key players in the Baker administration should have noticed the Registry of Motor Vehicles was falling behind on public safety-related tasks while it focused on reducing customer wait times, but conceded that investigators may never get a clear answer on who knew what.
Rep. William Straus, who previously criticized a “war on wait times” at the RMV, told WGBH’s “Greater Boston” that extensive interview notes from an outside audit firm reveal a significant focus on customer service at the Registry before a fatal crash in June prompted re-evaluation of thousands of warnings that should have resulted in license suspensions.
Gov. Charlie Baker and his administration have denied that they shifted staff from back-end departments that manage violation notices to front-facing service tasks, but Straus alleged Wednesday that argument is “simply not true.”
“Positions were left unfilled in critical areas and vacancies were only filled, from the information we’ve developed, in these branch offices because, again, the focus was only customer service,” Straus said during the interview.
The RMV was thrown into the spotlight over the summer when West Springfield driver Volodymyr Zhukovskyy allegedly killed seven motorcyclists in a collision in New Hampshire.
After the crash, state officials disclosed that the RMV failed to suspend his license based on a recent arrest in Connecticut and for more than a year had not been processing virtually any warnings from other states about violations that should have taken drivers off the road.
Between July, when the crisis at the RMV emerged, and the conclusion of audit firm Grant Thornton’s investigation in October, the state suspended licenses of more than 6,300 Massachusetts drivers, mostly based on old out-of-state violations.
Former Registrar Erin Deveney told auditors with Grant Thornton that she told Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and a top aide to Baker that an RMV department was struggling to process the notifications, but the administration has denied any knowledge about the problems before the crash.
In a separate “Greater Boston” segment that aired last week, Pollack reiterated her stance and said awareness of the growing backlog topped out at former registrar Deveney.
“Had I known, I would have done when I found out exactly what we’ve been doing for the last three months,” Pollack said.
WGBH host Jim Braude played that clip for Straus and asked the chairman if he was convinced. Straus replied that, regardless of whether the administration knew, he believes “the information was in front of them” ready to be detected.
“Here’s the way I look at it: if she didn’t know, she should have,” Straus said. “If the governor and his deputy chief of staff didn’t know, they should have. I think that’s as a result of a policy decision that was made many years ago by the Baker administration that they would look at the wrong things. They didn’t think they were looking at the wrong things, but it goes to a much more fundamental question as to what we do out of this.”
Straus said lawmakers may not be able to reach a final, decisive conclusion on which administration officials knew about problems within the RMV and when.
“You’ve got disparate testimony,” Straus said. “We’re not a court of law. But we can, even with that disagreement, come to policy recommendations to say, look, some process has to be established, and the auditor puts it out there, in terms of a greater focus and activity on risk management.”
He added: “I think what’s important for us is to make recommendations as to management changes and, if necessary, regulatory and legislative changes to guard against this,” Straus said.