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Baker says he didn’t know of registry backlog before crash

BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said Wednesday he did not learn of problems his state’s Registry of Motor Vehicles had with processing notifications sent by other states until after a crash that killed seven motorcyclists last month, though top agency officials have testified they were aware of the potentially dangerous issue for years.
Baker, a Republican, told reporters after signing the state’s annual budget that he only became aware of the chronic backlogs, “when it was first reported after the terrible tragedy in New Hampshire that there was an outstanding issue in Connecticut.”
The governor was referring to notices that had been sent to Massachusetts that the commercial truck driver involved in the June 21 crash had been arrested weeks earlier on a drunken driving charge in Connecticut. The information, had it been acted on by the agency, could have triggered suspension of Volodymyr Zhukovskyy’s license prior to the New Hampshire crash.
State officials subsequently revealed that thousands of unprocessed out-of-state notifications of infractions by Massachusetts drivers had been piling up in boxes, raising concerns about other drivers who might otherwise have been taken off the road.
Baker said he learned of the backlog on the same day, June 25, that then-Registrar of Motor Vehicles Erin Devaney submitted her resignation.
During a more than seven-hour legislative oversight hearing on Tuesday , Devaney and several current state officials testified that the problems surrounding the processing of out-of-state notices had been lingering at the agency for years.
Devaney said after taking the top job at the registry in 2015, she became aware that there was no system in place for dealing with the notifications. She said she later assigned the task to the Merit Rating Board, a unit historically responsible for reviewing in-state driving violations.
In April of the current year, an auditor with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation reported to officials that she had discovered within the registry’s computer system an “open queue” containing 12,899 unprocessed out-of-state notifications.
Asked if he was surprised the issues never worked their way up the chain of command to reach his desk, Baker did not respond directly but said it was “absolutely incredible” that the backlogs had persisted as long as they had.
Also Wednesday, the vice chairman of the legislative committee which held Tuesday’s hearing said the director of Merit Rating Board, Thomas Bowes, had lost the confidence of the public and should resign his post.
Sen. Eric Lesser, a Democrat from Longmeadow, said in a statement that Bowes was the official most responsible for processing the out-of-state notices and was alerted on multiple occasions “that there were boxes of unprocessed documents that could put public safety at risk, and he failed to act.”
Neither Bowes nor the registry planned to comment immediately on Lesser’s request, according to the agency.
On Tuesday, Bowes testified that his unit lacked sufficient staffing to properly deal with the backlog, and that after glitches developed in a new registry software program he was instructed by Devaney in March 2018 put aside the out-of-state notices and concentrate on processing of in-state violations.
Baker said Wednesday that complaints of inadequate staffing at the registry were a “big part” of an ongoing examination of the registry by Grant Thornton, an independent auditing firm.
Zhukovskyy, 23, of West Springfield, Massachusetts, has pleaded not guilty to negligent homicide in connection with the New Hampshire crash. The seven who died were members of the Jarheads, a New England motorcycle club that includes Marines and their spouses.