Lawmakers set hearing on RMV scandal

Desi Smith/Staff file photo/"It's disappointing that we don't have a federal system that can be accessed in an efficient manner so that we don't have to resort to paper and bins,"said State Senate Minority Leader Bruce E. Tarr of Gloucester about problems at the Registry of Motor Vehicles. "I don't think this is just a situation that affects Massachusetts."  

BOSTON — Lawmakers plan to grill Baker administration officials about problems with the Registry of Motor Vehicles at an upcoming oversight hearing, as the investigation into the agency's mishandling of license suspensions due to out-of-state violations continues.

Baker administration officials will appear before the Legislature's Joint Transportation Committee on July 22 to answer questions about problems that led to the RMV’s failure to suspend the commercial driver's license of Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, charged with negligent homicide in the June 21 crash that killed seven motorcycle riders .

"We need to do a deep dive on this to find out more about the magnitude of the problem, which appears to be very large," said state Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, a transportation committee member. "More importantly, we need figure out what needs to change to make sure this doesn't happen again."

"When paperwork and routine administrative duties are impacting peoples lives, that's a serious issue," Tucker added. "We need to get to the bottom of it."

Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, also a transportation committee member, said a thorough legislative review of the state agency is necessary "to ensure the RMV is doing its due diligence to keep our roadways safe moving forward."

'This was a fail'

Connecticut officials twice alerted the Massachusetts RMV about a drunken driving arrest against Zhukovskyy, including one notice that was sent by FedEx, but the agency failed to suspend his Massachusetts-issued commercial driver's license, as required.

Zhukovskyy, 23, was the driver of a pickup truck in a fiery collision on a rural New Hampshire highway that killed seven bikers. Records show his driving history included multiple OUI arrests and accidents in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

The revelation that Massachusetts didn't act on the Connecticut notices led to the resignation of RMV chief Erin Deveney, and sparked an internal review that uncovered tens of thousands of notifications from other states about Massachusetts driver violations that had not been processed since March 2018. The notices had been languishing in bins in a Quincy storage room.

As of Friday, 846 drivers have had their licenses suspended as RMV employees continue to work through the backlog, according to MassDOT.

Gov. Charlie Baker has called the agency's failure to act on Zhukovskyy's driving violations "deeply troubling and completely unacceptable."

"This was a fail," Baker told reporters Monday. "I don't think that anyone believes this is acceptable, and the Registry is working very quickly to right the issues associated with process and performance that created this in the first place. We'll certainly cooperate with the Legislature on the oversight hearings."

'Immediate need to reprioritize'

Baker said he is working on legislation to toughen the requirements for commercial driving licenses. His administration has hired Grant Thornton, a private auditing firm, to conduct an independent investigation into why the RMV stopped reviewing out-of-state violation notices.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, said he views the problems with the RMV as part of a larger issue of public safety information not being shared between states in a timely and efficient manner.

"It's disappointing that we don't have a federal system that can be accessed in an efficient manner so that we don't have to resort to paper and bins," he said. "I don't think this is just a situation that affects Massachusetts."

The latest report on the ongoing investigation from the state Department of Transportation noted the RMV has "struggled" to maintain its dual role as a customer service and public safety agency, "creating an environment that allowed for the failures we have identified."

"Our initial review points convincingly at an immediate need to reprioritize the public safety mission of the organization," the report stated.

Baker critics have seized on the Registry's mishandling of out-of-state violation notices to blast the second-term Republican governor's performance.

Democratic Party chairman Gus Bickford accused Baker of mismanaging the Registry and taking a "hand's off" approach to fixing the problems.

"In 2014, Charlie Baker promised to improve operations at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, but in the past few days, we've learned that just the opposite happened," he said in a statement. "Under Baker's leadership, the RMV simply stopped performing basic functions critical to ensuring public safety."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.