Our Opinion: A deadly scandal at state registry

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The accident that killed seven motorcyclists and severely injured a Dalton man was horrific enough before it was learned the alleged operator of the truck that hit them was driving with a license that should have been suspended but was not. Adding to the horror and dismay is the knowledge that the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles has been ignoring written notices of out-of-state violations, including the truck driver's, for more than a year, inexplicably collecting them instead in a warehouse in Quincy.

Residents had their faith in government shaken two years ago when a state drug lab chemist's theft and use of drugs from the lab led to more than 8,000 drug cases across the state being dropped or overturned. Security measures at the lab were supposed to prevent that from happening. Now comes an RMV embarrassment that causes residents to again wonder why accountability is not assured within state agencies.

Volodymyr Zhukovskyy,  of West Springfield, who has been charged with seven counts of negligent homicide in the New Hampshire tragedy, had been arrested in May in Connecticut for allegedly operating under the influence and refusing a chemical test. Massachusetts Registrar Erin Deveney resigned when it was revealed that electronic and written notification about the arrest from Connecticut went unnoticed by the Massachusetts RMV, which should have suspended the truck driver's Massachusetts license upon receiving that notification. Joshua Morin of Dalton was transported by helicopter to Maine Medical Center in Portland after the June 23 crash, where he remains under care.

A review of RMV procedures by interim Registrar Jamey Tesler found that tens of thousands of license notices for a variety of offenses had been piled up in the Quincy warehouse over a period of 16 months. According to state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, the electronic notification of Mr. Zhukovskyy's arrest had been "kicked into" a queue that employees were supposed to review manually. Presumably the written notice ended up there as well.

Questions abound. Why were no staffers no longer assigned to do that job? Was this a purposeful decision or a bureaucratic oversight? Is the RMV grievously understaffed, badly managed, or both? Why did this situation not come to the attention of state Auditor Suzanne Bump, whose office is charged with maintaining government accountability and ensuring good performance? These out-of-state arrest notices are in the process of being reviewed, but it took a tragedy that led to the dismissal of the registrar to cause this to happen. Otherwise, the notices would still be piling up today.

As of Monday, 655 licenses have been suspended, all because of alcohol-related violations, since the registry began reviewing the manual notices that had been collected in 53 bins in the Quincy warehouse. The agency now plans to review all 5.2 million licenses issued in Massachusetts and compare them to electronic records in the federal National Driver Registry to determine if any recent violations require suspension. Gov. Charlie Baker said at a press conference Monday that he will seek a full independent audit of the RMV.

The governor acknowledged that his administration "has a lot of work to do earn back" public trust in the RMV. That it does, and doing so means a public explanation of what happened and why, and what is being done to assure that it doesn't happen again.

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