BOSTON – The director of the Massachusetts Highway Safety Division lost her job Sunday after a newspaper reported that her driving record included seven accidents, four speeding violations and one failure to wear a seat belt.
Secretary of Public Safety and Security Mary Elizabeth Heffernan told the Boston Globe in a statement that Sheila Burgess will be assigned to a "different role" within the department. Burgess has been on medical leave since she suffered a head injury in an August crash. She told police she swerved off the road to avoid an oncoming vehicle and wasn't cited.
"Given her driving record, it is clear that Ms. Burgess should not have been hired as the director of Highway Safety in 2007," Heffernan said in a statement.
The Globe reported Sunday that Burgess has 34 entries on her driving record since 1982. The status of her driver's license status was "nonrenewable" until Nov. 1 for failure to pay local excise taxes.
Burgess declined to answer detailed questions about the accident and her $87,000-a-year job. A spokesman for Heffernan had earlier told the newspaper that she was comfortable knowing that Burgess had no driving issues between the date of her hiring and the Aug. 24 accident.
Brendan Ryan, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, said Burgess was hired, in part, based on a recommendation by U.S. Rep. James McGovern. Burgess is a former consultant to McGovern.
McGovern spokesman Michael Mershon said the congressman didn't recommend Burgess for any specific position.
"He just said, `Here's a good person for the Patrick administration to hire,"' Mershon said, adding that he didn't know whether McGovern knew about Burgess' driving record.
The announcement that Burgess was being reassigned came hours after Patrick told reporters he was angry that she had been hired as highway safety director and that he would find out how she had gotten the job.
"I will get to the bottom on it," he said.
Burgess had no background in public safety, transportation or government administration when she was appointed highway safety director in July 2007. She had worked for two decades in Democratic Party politics as a paid consultant and congressional aide, raising money and advising political candidates including Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray.
As highway safety chief, her duties entail overseeing public campaigns on the dangers of speeding, texting while driving, driving while impaired and not buckling up.
In the August crash in Milton, state police said Burgess was driving a state vehicle during work hours when her car veered off the road and slammed into a rock outcropping at about 1:15 p.m. on a sunny day.
A state police spokesman said troopers didn't ask Burgess whether she had been using her cellphone or was distracted in any other way. State police also didn't ask her if she was wearing a seat belt. The spokesman said the accident was handled the same way as similar accidents.