Her driving record includes seven accidents, four speeding violations, two failures to stop for a police officer, one failure to stay in her lane, one driving without registration or license in possession, and one driving without wearing a seat belt.
When she was nabbed for speeding in New Hampshire in 1999, she failed to show up at her hearing, records show. Until Nov. 1, her license was on nonrenewal status for failure to pay local excise taxes. There are 34 entries on her driving record, dating back to 1982.
Yet Sheila Burgess is director of the Massachusetts Highway Safety Division. Her mission is to reduce accidents by promoting good driving practices. She oversees public campaigns on the dangers of speeding, texting while driving, driving while impaired, and failing to wear a seat belt, among other hazards.
Burgess’s most recent crash occurred on Aug. 24, as she was driving a state vehicle during work hours. At 1:16 on a sunny summer afternoon, her car veered off the road in the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton and slammed into a rock outcropping, a State Police report says.
Burgess was appointed to her $87,000-a-year position in July 2007, without any background in public safety, transportation, or government administration. Her experience was in Democratic Party politics. For almost two decades as a paid consultant and congressional aide, she had raised money and advised candidates for public office, including — according to her resume — Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray, who had taken office six months earlier as part of the new Patrick administration.
Burgess, 48, of Randolph, suffered a head injury in the crash and has not returned to work, and while officials say she is on “approved leave,” they have declined to say whether she is getting paid. She told police after the crash that she swerved into the woods to avoid an oncoming vehicle, the State Police report says. She was not cited for any driving violations.
In a short interview on Wednesday, Burgess said, “I was in an accident and have a head injury.” She referred detailed questions about the crash and her job to the state public safety agency, which oversees traffic safety.
A spokesman for Governor Deval Patrick and Murray said late Friday that Burgess was hired, in part, based on the recommendation of US Representative James McGovern, for whom Burgess once worked as a consultant. Brendan Ryan, the spokesman, said he could not address why Burgess was hired into the administration as head of traffic safety despite her record of driving violations.
McGovern did recommend Burgess, said a spokesman for the representative, but not for a specific position.
“He just said, ‘Here’s a good person for the Patrick administration to hire,’ ” said Michael Mershon, the spokesman. Mershon said he had no information on whether her driving record was known to McGovern at the time of his recommendation, or who specifically in the Patrick administration he made the recommendation to.
After arriving at the scene of Burgess’s crash, State Police apparently took no investigative steps. Burgess by then was out of the car and being treated by an ambulance crew and State Police did not ask questions about whether she had been using her state-provided cellphone while driving or was distracted in any other way, a State Police spokesman said.
State Police did not ask whether she was wearing a seat belt. The spokesman said the accident was handled the same way “as any other crash with similar circumstances.”
“The operator observed an unknown vehicle traveling towards her in her travel lane,” the report says. “Operator swerved to the right to avoid a collision, causing her vehicle [to] run off the roadway on the right side, striking a boulder on the side of the road.”
Officials at the state Office of Public Safety and Security, where Burgess has worked since 2007, said the Ford Taurus she was driving is being repaired. In addition to the highway safety division, state public safety secretary Mary Elizabeth Heffernan also oversees the State Police.
When asked whether Heffernan was comfortable with Burgess’s long driving record, spokesman Terrel Harris said that she “was comfortable knowing Burgess has had no driving issues between the date of her hiring and the time of her [Aug. 24] accident.”
Burgess was not talking on her state-provided phone at the time of the crash, but she used it numerous times that day for phone calls, phone records show. State officials declined to release a record showing the number of times, if any, she sent text messages during the monthly billing period that included the Aug. 24 crash date. Cellphone records do not include a list of when text messages were sent, but simply report how many were sent in the course of a month.Continued...