Employees leaving cash payments lying on their desks during lunch breaks. Alleged threats of termination if wait times at service centers didn’t drop. Workers scanning the driving records of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for no clear reason.
Amid its high-profile failure to track alerts on troubled drivers, the Registry of Motor Vehicles has grappled with other serious issues that have frustrated internal auditors, in some cases for years, according to a trove of interviews conducted by an outside firm and made public Wednesday.
The details were among nearly 300 pages of notes the firm, Grant Thornton, compiled for its state-commissioned review of the Registry, after the Registry failed to suspend the license of Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, the truck driver who was later accused of causing a crash that killed seven people along a New Hampshire highway in June.
The firm had initially refused to give to state lawmakers the records from 41 interviews it conducted of current and former state employees and contractors, telling state officials it wouldn’t do so without legal action. But it reversed course Monday, and the Baker administration on Wednesday released the records in response to a Globe request.
The interview “notes’’ — which often read like a transcript — underscore many of the conclusions Grant Thornton has previously made public, including that the agency failed for decades to prioritize notifications from other states about Massachusetts residents who broke their traffic laws.
It also laid out in further detail former registrar Erin Deveney’s claim that she had previously told Governor Charlie Baker’s deputy chief of staff, Mindy d’Arbeloff, and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack about a Registry unit’s struggle to process the alerts.
The raw interview notes line up with what was disclosed in an earlier report: Neither d’Arbeloff nor Pollack said they recalled such a conversation. Baker has asserted that he and his office were not told about the problem before the deadly New Hampshire crash pushed it into public view.
But in alarming, and sometimes unvarnished detail, the interviews also paint a vivid picture of criticisms that the Baker administration was so consumed with the Registry’s customer service functions, it pushed aside or neglected its public safety responsibilities.
Jim Logan, the Department of Transportation’s director of audit operations, said the pressure was so intense from the administration to slash the abysmal wait times at Registry service centers that employees were “being threatened with their job to get wait times down.’’ He also said he’d been told second-hand accounts that d’Arbeloff “made the threats to both managers and staff.’’
“The customer facing side of the RMV was more important,’’ Logan told interviewers from Grant Thornton. “I am not a fan of Mindy. We saw what went on to fix customer service things.’’
Sarah Finlaw, a Baker spokeswoman, denied that officials made such threats, and said that Logan was not involved in what officials had dubbed its “War on Wait Times’’ initiative after Baker promised to reshape the Registry as part of his 2014 campaign.
“As reflected in these notes, the independent auditors interviewed 41 employees from the Registry, MassDOT, and Governor’s office and concluded that Registry employees neglected out-of-state records for several years,’’ she said in a statement.
Logan, however, said the focus on reducing times manifested in other ways, including managers being pulled from other offices to work customer service counters. Some branches, he claimed, had become so overstaffed, “we cannot even find a place to sit on site.’’
Cheryl Collaro-Surrette, a MassDOT field services audit manager, told Grant Thornton officials that “most of our resources have been decimated’’ while public-facing Registry branches had more employees “than chairs/desks available.’’
MassDOT officials have repeatedly denied they siphoned workers from public safety roles to staff branches, noting that since 2016, staff and budgets had increased throughout the agency, not just for customer-facing jobs.
Judith Reardon Riley, a MassDOT spokeswoman, said Wednesday that at “no point were existing resources’’ taken from the two offices that had been specifically tasked to handle out-of-state notifications — the Driver Control Unit and, later, the Merit Rating Board.
In her August interview with Grant Thornton, d’Arbeloff, a longtime friend of Baker, stressed that while she worked closely with Registry officials, she was focused on customer service — so much so, she said, “I could not have told you before this what MRB stood for/was.’’
That, in itself, is the problem, said Representative William M. Straus, cochair of the Legislature’s transportation committee, which had requested the Grant Thornton records.
“That’s as depressing of a statement that I’ve seen,’’ he said of d’Arbeloff’s comment, calling it as “strong a reflection as we’ve seen of the single-minded determination that a customer issue — wait times — would be the focus for management and staff resources, ultimately to the detriment of the public safety role.’’
Progress the administration had made in shortening the lines hit a weeks-long snag starting in March 2018, when customers faced up to five-hour waits after the Registry launched a new software system and offered a new kind of license under federal rules.
Logan described other problems during two Grant Thornton interviews in July and August.
He said, for example, 540 users had accessed Zhukovskyy’s driving record after the accident became public, though why so many would need to for their jobs was unclear. “We are not in there for our own general knowledge or to see why something is in the news,’’ he said.
MassDOT officials dispute that, saying “fewer than 100 individuals’’ have looked at Zhukovskyy’s record, and argued the raw notes “are the opinions of the people’’ interviewed.
“It was [Grant Thornton’s] responsibility to validate the information given during the interviews and the final report reflects the information GT was able to validate,’’ Riley said.
But Logan said he’s raised the issue about accessing Registry records for seven years and “nothing has been done,’’ and questioned why some have looked up other high-profile records, including of Baker himself and Brady, the Patriots quarterback.
“We have people at Highway accessing records, vendors accessing records. Why are people looking into Charlie Baker’s driving record? This should not be happening,’’ he said. “There could be a valid reason, but we just need to know why this is happening. Why are people accessing Tom Brady’s record? The RMV has extremely confidential information, including medical information.’’
Riley did not specific address Logan’s assertions about Baker and Brady, but said new software the Registry installed last year has given it better ways to safeguard “that only employees are appropriately using the system.’’
Logan and others also said they have concerns about how the Registry handles cash, including that some clerks leave cash on their desks during lunch breaks or checks sitting around overnight. Collaro-Surrette, the field services audit manager, said officials found repeated examples of people using “faulty checks’’ and some staff handling money who weren’t supposed to.
Riley said the Registry is “actively working’’ to address the concerns, including by conducting audits of each service center and installing new security cameras.
Others questioned how seriously some officials take the issue.
Betsy Taylor, the chairwoman of the MassDOT board’s Finance and Audit Committee, told Grant Thornton officials that “the way cash is being handled here . . . pains me.’’
“We tried to handle this,’’ she said, “but it is not something the rest of the board cares about.’’