Virginia DMV licensing services will be stalled until at least Wednesday

(Bob Brown - AP)
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By Derek Kravitz and Anita Kumar
Tuesday, August 31, 2010

An unprecedented statewide computer outage that has kept the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles from issuing new or replacement driver's licenses will continue through Tuesday, prompting Gov. Robert F. McDonnell to call for a probe into the failure and law enforcement agencies to issue blanket amnesty to thousands of drivers whose licenses have expired.

The hardware malfunction of a state government data storage system, in a facility just south of Richmond, began Wednesday afternoon when about 228 servers unexpectedly went offline. Repairs have been completed for most of the 27 state agencies that were affected, but the largest and most complex databases are still being worked on, said Marcella Williamson, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, which oversees the state's computer systems.

McDonnell (R) on Monday called for an independent investigation into the computer blackout, and state officials say the company's financial penalties are likely to exceed $100,000.

"I am not pleased that our employees and citizens have experienced this disruption in service," McDonnell said in his first comments since the computer failure. "I have directed an operational and performance review of the situation be conducted so that we can determine the proper course of action to best protect the interests of the commonwealth. It is crucial we learn what happened and why in order to ensure that such occurrences are prevented in the future."

The board of elections and departments of motor vehicles and taxation are still affected, officials said, and DMV licensing services will not be back online until at least Wednesday.

Northrop Grumman and EMC2, the manufacturer of the storage system and its backup, said it is reliable and the failure is "very unusual." But Northrop has come under fire before for issues involving its $2.4 billion computer contract, the largest of any kind in the commonwealth's history.

A Virginia legislative audit released in October found that the computer system had caused problems at almost every state agency that uses computers. In April, the state reworked its contract with Northrop, extending the 10-year contract by three years, broadening it and raising its price tag. Long lines and confusion have plagued many of Virginia's 74 DMV offices, with customers complaining of poor communication.

"You get there early in the morning and you wait, and no one tells you what's going on," said retiree Philip Skelly, 84, who went to the DMV office in Arlington County on Thursday and Monday mornings to renew his license. "Why the hell don't they at least have a sign saying the equipment isn't working?"

About 5,000 Virginians who cannot renew their licenses or state-issued identification cards online have had them expire since the meltdown, said Melanie Stokes, a DMV spokeswoman.

"We have apologized so much for the inconvenience and hope our customers will understand that we're working on it," Stokes said.

The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police asked local and state law-enforcement agencies Monday to stop issuing tickets for those who have been unable to renew their licenses. Several agencies, including the Fairfax County Police Department, have agreed, issuing memos to officers to give affected drivers a pass.

The Virginia State Police said they will not cite drivers whose licenses expired during the blackout but said tickets that were issued before Monday will "go through the court system." Troopers have been advised to discuss those cases with commonwealth's attorneys.

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