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.
At the time of the crash, Burgess’s license was active but had been flagged for nonrenewal because of failure to pay local excise taxes. After the Globe began making inquiries, the taxes were paid and her license status was cleared.
As highway safety director, Burgess is the Patrick administration’s chief safety officer for drivers. In a recent newsletter mailed to hundreds of police departments statewide, she articulated a clear message on safe driving. “Remember: drive safely, soberly, and distraction-free. And always buckle — every trip, every time,” she wrote last spring.
Burgess manages a staff of about six, and helps parcel out more than $2 million a year in grants to state and local police departments for public awareness programs on safe driving, including money to underwrite overtime for police.
Her resume, which she distributed to staff members, lists her as a former executive director and aide for five years to former Representative J. Joseph Moakley. It says she was Moakley’s campaign manager in 2000.
Her resume cites, among other duties, that she “facilitated all fund-raising and events for the congressman as well as other candidates as required.” Moakley died in May 2001.
As a paid fund-raising consultant, Burgess worked for, in addition to Murray and McGovern, Senator John Kerry, gubernatorial candidate Chris Gabrieli, former Quincy mayor James Sheets, former state treasurer and gubernatorial candidate Shannon O’Brien, and state Senator Thomas McGee of Lynn, according to her resume.
She lists among her affiliations the “Kerry for President Finance Committee” and the “Shannon O’Brien Finance Committee.”
McGovern was a close confidante and aide to Moakley before being elected to Congress in 1996. McGovern and Murray, both Worcester residents, are close political allies, as are McGovern and Patrick. All are Democrats.
Burgess lists herself as principal of SHB Consulting/Mass Strategy Group. Campaign finance records show Mass Strategy Group was paid $11,414 for fund-raising consulting during Murray’s 2003 campaign for Worcester mayor. (He was first elected mayor in 2001.) The firm was paid $6,000 by Murray’s mayoral campaign committee in 2004. Murray was reelected as mayor in 2005 and ran successfully for lieutenant governor in 2006.
A spokesman for Murray’s campaign said that while Murray has no recollection of Sheila Burgess working as a consultant, he does remember her sister, Coleen, as doing so. Mass Strategy Group lists Coleen Burgess as president of the firm and Sheila Burgess as registered agent, state corporation records show.
Last year, another state employee in a sensitive public safety position was forced to resign after the Globe reported his long record of driving violations. In that case, it was Murray who in 2008 recommended the hiring of the employee, Matthew McLaughlin, as a $60,000-a-year appointee to the Board of Appeals, which hears appeals from drunken drivers who have lost their licenses. McLaughlin’s driving record includes a license suspension for refusing to take a breathalyzer test and six speeding tickets.
Matthew McLaughlin is the son of Michael McLaughlin, the former Chelsea Housing Authority executive director now under federal investigation for apparently using government money intended for fixing-up public housing apartments to jack up his own salary to $360,000 a year. Investigators are also scrutinizing Michael McLaughlin’s involvement in fund-raisers for Murray.Sean P. Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @spmurphyboston.