It’s hard to imagine the cold shoulders and acts of defiance between the White House and Congress as some kind of model for comity and cooperation in government. But the D.C. parlor games were on full display on Beacon Hill last week when key officials from the Registry of Motor Vehicles were no-shows for a hearing by the Joint Committee on Transportation.
Instead of a session spent clearing up the mystery of how Volodymyr Zhukovskyy could manage to keep his Massachusetts driver’s license even after Connecticut officials flagged his arrest for drunken driving — or why hundreds of similar referrals piled up, without action, in an office at the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles — Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack delivered an excuse. The Baker administration has ordered its own audit, she reported, and did not want hearing testimony to muddle the process. The committee’s leaders closed their meeting after a half-hour with what we’ll assume was disgust.
The affair felt a little bit like White House counselor Kellyanne Conway stiffing the House Oversight Committee, or Attorney General William Barr refusing to appear before the House Judiciary Committee, in Congress. You’d be right to wonder how it's possible that a government official, drawing a government paycheck, refuses to face questions from the entity whose job it is to hold those officials accountable.
On Beacon Hill, much like Capitol Hill, that oversight rests with the people’s representatives, elected members of the Legislature. Refusing to appear before them is a stunning act of disrespect — to both its members and voters who sent them there.
The transportation committee’s questions are a matter of pressing public safety. Zhukovskyy, 23, was driving a pickup truck and towing a trailer involved in a horrific June 21 crash that killed seven motorcyclists on a two-lane road in Randolph, N.H. He pleaded not guilty to charges of negligent homicide. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has opened an investigation into his employer, Westfield Transportation of Springfield, whose truck he was driving. It’s now clear, in retrospect, that based on his arrest in Connecticut, Zhukovskyy’s Massachusetts license should have been suspended.
That it wasn’t, and that hundreds more were similarly shielded by bureaucratic indifference, is without question a deadly serious matter. What topic could be more urgent to receive the Legislature’s time and attention? Who better to give an explanation than those who run the offices charged with following up on such notices from other states, and with keeping track of driving records?
“We do want to get some answers,” said Sen. Joseph Boncore, D-Winthrop, Transportation Committee co-chairman, according to a WBUR account of Tuesday’s abbreviated hearing. “And it’s frustrating that we won’t be able to seemingly get to some of the answers of how the registry conducted itself and the systems in place and the failure … of those systems in place today.”
Rep. Paul Tucker, former Salem police chief, said the Legislature’s questions are just as important as those of some outside auditor. He moved to postpone the hearing until the committee gets all of the relevant information — not just some of it. The Baker administration should see to it that those details are delivered immediately.
More likely is that lawmakers, and the rest of us, will be made to wait for the results of a Grant Thornton audit, underway for about two weeks now. Pollack said state officials will be “happy” to return once the review is complete and answer everyone’s questions. Until then, they don’t want public testimony on Beacon Hill to somehow cloud the auditing process.
The Baker administration’s opportunity to get in front of this calamity, by ordering up an audit and crafting statements about its results, is long past. The Legislature and citizens of Massachusetts deserve timely answers about what happened at the Registry of Motor Vehicles. The Transportation Department should absolutely proceed with an outside review -- but the Legislature’s questions take priority.