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A long-dormant oversight board fired Merit Rating Board Director Thomas Bowes on Tuesday, making him the second Registry of Motor Vehicles employee to depart in the wake of a fatal crash allegedly caused by a driver whose license should have been suspended.
The Merit Rating Board — a three-member panel bearing the same name as the RMV unit it manages — voted 3-0 in its first meeting since 2015 to terminate Bowes, a decision that his attorney criticized as scapegoating.
Bowes' department for years failed to process tens of thousands of paper out-of-state driver violation notices, including one that should have automatically triggered a commercial license suspension for West Springfield man Volodymyr Zhukovskyy before he allegedly killed seven motorcyclists in a crash in New Hampshire.
"This is really about the right leadership going forward to fix the problems that we have found and discussed," Acting Registrar Jamey Tesler, who chairs the oversight board, told reporters after the meeting. "There are problems with the MRB and its core functions, including in-state issues, and today's action was taken to get the right leadership to move forward and solve those."
Bowes joins former Registrar Erin Deveney, who resigned days after the crash, in leaving the Registry amid the scandal.
He told the board that he accepts "full responsibility" for his department's role in a tragedy that "should never have happened."
But his attorney, Leonard Kesten, criticized the Baker administration for targeting Bowes, even if his client expected to be terminated "without a doubt."
"A lot of people had to make a lot of mistakes for this to happen," Kesten said.
Kesten referred to an audit's finding that, while the Merit Rating Board did indeed miss a written notification about Zhukovskyy's arrest in Connecticut, a separate department within the RMV also failed to act on a similar electronic alert despite an employee briefly opening it.
"There's a failure of leadership up and down," Kesten said. "A good leader takes the blame and moves on to fix it. That's what leadership is about, saying 'I screwed up, let me fix it,' not saying 'Let me get rid of a couple of people that worked for me.'"
Kesten said Bowes does not plan to file a lawsuit against the RMV. Bowes had previously launched a campaign for mayor of Braintree, and Kesten said he did not know if his client is still running.
Rep. Mark Cusack, a Braintree Democrat who is not a member of the Joint Committee on Transportation conducting a legislative investigation of the RMV, criticized the decision as a "hit job" in a Tuesday afternoon statement.
"To make such a management decision as the MRB did today before the final 'independent' audit by Grant Thornton is finalized only bolsters the importance of the Legislature’s investigation into what happened, who knew what and when," Cusack wrote in a statement. "It begs credulity that the DOT and the Baker Administration could be so cut off from their Registry and their public safety mission."
At least one member of the committee actually performing the investigation, though, had pushed for Bowes to leave the position. Sen. Eric Lesser called for Bowes' resignation the day after he testified before lawmakers.
Since the crash, both internal and external investigations have revealed systemic management failures that allowed thousands of warnings about drivers to go unattended. More than 2,400 Massachusetts residents have had their licenses suspended based on the old notifications.
Handling the printed versions had previously been the Driver Control Unit's responsibility, but its head, Keith Constantino, successfully had the job transferred to the Merit Rating Board shortly after Bowes took over.
Bowes' department quickly fell behind and a backlog grew. Once the RMV switched over to a new ATLAS software in March 2018, it virtually abandoned processing any out-of-state warnings to instead focus on separate challenges with in-state citations, Bowes told lawmakers last month.
Asked why Bowes did not bring his concerns about being unable to complete the necessary work higher up to the Baker administration rather than just to Deveney, Kesten replied, "Find me somebody that does that."
Tesler will appoint an interim director of the Merit Rating Board to serve for up to two months. The RMV will also post a listing for the full-time job, and the board will help with the hiring process.
"Today was an important step to begin the critical role this board will play going forward," Tesler said.
Along with Tesler, the oversight board includes Commissioner of Insurance Gary Anderson and Glenn Kaplan, chief of Attorney General Maura Healey's insurance and financial services division.
Tesler said that the board had not met in "some time," repeating a line he used in a report last week.
Healey's office, though, said Tuesday's meeting was the first in four years — since before Bowes was hired and before the department it ostensibly manages took on the crucial new responsibility of processing out-of-state notifications — and Kaplan said he made "repeated requests" for it to convene.
"The attorney general has expressed already deep disappointment in the lack of leadership, management and accountability" at the RMV, Kaplan said.
Tesler said the board plans to meet regularly moving forward, but members did not offer specific details. He ignored questions from reporters as he exited Tuesday's meeting about when the next meeting would take place.
This article was originally published on August 20, 2019.
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