In a sign of the scandal’s deepening fallout, a state board on Tuesday fired the head of an embattled Registry of Motor Vehicles unit, marking the second RMV official’s departure since a fatal New Hampshire crash exposed years of deep-rooted bureaucratic failures.
A three-member oversight panel voted unanimously to remove Thomas Bowes as director of the Registry’s Merit Rating Board. The decision — made during the panel’s first meeting in years — came weeks after Bowes admitted to having knowingly stopped processing alerts from other states about law-breaking Massachusetts drivers.
“There are problems with the MRB in its core functions,” said acting Registrar Jamey Tesler, who chaired the panel that fired Bowes. “Today’s action was taken to get the right leadership to move forward and solve those.”
Once a little-known, midlevel manager, Bowes became a central figure in the Registry’s crisis in recent weeks. The lapses in his unit — and the discovery in late June of more than 50 bins of unread notices of errant motorists in a Registry storage room — ultimately spurred officials to suspend the licenses of thousands of drivers, some of whom should have been off the road years earlier because of drunken-driving and other serious charges.
Speaking briefly before the vote, Bowes said he takes “full responsibility for the role my department played” in the deadly New Hampshire crash. But his attorney, Leonard Kesten, suggested later that his client was being made a scapegoat in the wider Registry scandal.
“A lot of people had to make a lot of mistakes for this to happen,” Kesten said. “To throw this man out at age 55, abruptly, it’s unfortunate.”
The avalanche of problems within the Registry only came to light when officials admitted they should have stripped a commercial license of a West Springfield trucker before he allegedly hit and killed seven people in a crash in late June. The disclosure prompted the registrar, Erin Deveney, to resign, and sparked multiple investigations into how far the Registry’s failures stretched.
Governor Charlie Baker and his transportation secretary, Stephanie Pollack, have said they first learned the agency had been ignoring alerts on errant drivers when Deveney stepped down.
Bowes, who was vacationing in Europe when the scandal first erupted, remained in his $114,455-a-year post for weeks despite calls for him, too, to step down. But that ended Tuesday, when the panel, also known as the Merit Rating Board, voted to both fire him and give Tesler the authority to name an acting director for up to two months while the panel searches for a permanent leader.
Bowes, a Braintree city councilor who was running for mayor when the scandal broke, did not comment after the meeting. Kesten, his attorney, said the failures at the Registry went “all the way up,” and pointed directly at Baker for managing the Registry’s deep-seated issues.
“Ultimately a good leader says, ‘It’s me, and I’m going to fix it,’ ” Kesten said.
Lizzy Guyton, a Baker spokeswoman, said the governor believes Bowes’s firing is “an important step in the right direction as Acting Registrar Tesler and Secretary Pollack continue their work to fix what is broken at the RMV, restore accountability, and improve public safety.”
Attorney General Maura Healey, who has a designee on the long-dormant board that fired Bowes, said the panel is dedicated to finding a qualified director as soon as possible.
“However, it’s clear that the Baker administration must make systemic changes at the RMV and in its oversight of the agency,” she said in a statement.
By law, Bowes is supposed to be appointed by the three-person oversight panel, which includes Tesler; Gary Anderson, the state’s insurance commissioner; and Healey or a designee. But the board hadn’t met since at least 2015, nor was her appointee, Glenn Kaplan, ever asked to vote on Bowes’s initial appointment in 2016, according to Healey’s office.
Kaplan, chief of the attorney general’s Insurance and Financial Services Division, also said Tuesday that he was never notified of the now-infamous decision to transfer the responsibility of processing out-of-state notifications to Bowes’s unit in 2016.
Bowes told a legislative committee last month that, in addition to failing to properly input the alerts starting in March 2018, he did not address years of older, backlogged notifications that had been transferred to his office in early 2017.
He argued that he did not have sufficient help on his roughly 62-person staff to keep up with the work. Lawmakers have questioned whether the Merit Rating Board staff, made up of mostly clerical workers whose jobs include handling insurance claims, had the experience and expertise to process the out-of-state notices.
But Bowes also ignored warning signs about his office’s quietly growing crisis. Earlier this year, an internal auditor told lawmakers that she found a backlog of nearly 13,000 unprocessed notices from other states sitting in an electronic queue within the Merit Rating Board. When she brought the findings to Bowes, he said he had “nobody” assigned to the work, and claimed his staffers “do not have time,” according to an internal memo.
He testified that he had contacted an IT employee about the electronic backlog, but acknowledged that he didn’t pursue it further.
Lawmakers investigating the agency said Tuesday that Bowes’s termination should only be one step of many the Baker administration takes in overhauling the Registry.
“I think this should be viewed as a start of a process of restoring confidence and fixing chronic and systemic issues, rather than an end,” said state Senator Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat who had called for Bowes to resign.
Representative William Straus, who cochairs the transportation committee, said Bowes’s firing “may or may not be justified in terms of employment performance.”
“But no one should be under the illusion that he had the authority or ability to have single-handedly caused the mismanagement and software implementation problems which invaded the operations of the RMV since 2016,” Straus said. “The key destructive decisions at the agency predated his arrival and much change still has to happen there.”
An outside auditor the state hired is expected to issue a final report on the Registry in the coming weeks.
The firm, Grant Thornton LLP, disclosed in an interim audit released last week that a Registry employee had actually opened the electronic record of Volodymyr Zhukovskyy and saw an alert suggesting his commercial license should be suspended. But the employee moved on within seconds without making any changes. Weeks later, Zhukovskyy was involved in the fatal crash while on an assignment for his trucking company.