Systemic politically-biased practices found in US Postal Service, Marshfield mail carrier acts as whistleblower

Published: Jul. 19, 2017 at 7:12 PM CDT
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A Marshfield mail carrier acted as a whistleblower in Washington D.C. Wednesday as he testified about an investigation into the United States Postal Service. The investigation revealed more than $90,000 was spent in overtime costs as nearly 100 US Postal mail carriers helped campaign largely for the democratic party in the 2016 election.

The US Office of Special Counsel ruled Wednesday the USPS violated an act that prohibits political bias and activity in government agencies. Without digging into records, but taking testimony from USPS workers and managers, they found this has been happening for at least 20 years, going back to the Bill Clinton election cycle.

The investigation began because Timm Kopp, a mail carrier for more than 10 years, came forward with concerns.

"The Post Office itself always stresses that it's supposed to be a neutral entity and to me, especially with all of the divides going on in our country lately, if this would continue, it would definitely show the post office in a partisan place," Kopp told 7 Investigates in a phone interview as he was boarding his plane back to Wisconsin.

In his testimony, he explained the National Association of Letter Carriers, the union that represents the majority of mail carriers in the country, was looking for volunteers in battleground states to help get Hillary Clinton and other, what they call, "pro-worker candidates" such as Russ Feingold and Julie Lassa elected.

In a press release from June of last year, the union stated: "There is a lot at stake on Tuesday, Nov. 8 -- for our country, our jobs and our families. Starting in key battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, and Nevada, NALC and America's letter carriers are ready to unite behind Hillary Clinton to make this great country even greater."

"We concluded that the USPS practice of facilitating and directing carrier releases for the union's political activity and the use of union official leave without pay for such activity, resulted in an institutional bias in favor of any NALC's endorsed political candidates and that this violated the Hatch Act," ruled Adam Miles of the US Office of Special Counsel.

Ninety-seven carriers from those battleground states and New Jersey volunteered, with a large percentage from Wisconsin. NALC sent a list of those volunteers to USPS management "as a courtesy" so they could make their people aware for communications purposes that requests for leave without pay would be coming.

Kopp said when volunteers at their Marshfield office sent in requests, it was with two days notice for a leave of absence lasting five weeks long. The office in Wisconsin Rapids, already down two to three people depending on the day, was losing two people to the union.

"According to John (Kopp's supervisor) both him and the other supervisor said they were going to deny the request because of staffing issues," wrote Kopp in his testimony. "When John later talked to me he said he was told by people higher up the chain that he must let the employee go. He also said he at very least tried to get that employee to stay until Saturday which would give him more time to cover the shortage but that was denied."

The requests for leave without pay were sent in under "union official business," which is allowed under their collective bargaining agreement, but whether to grant that request is up to USPS local management. According to the USPS deputy inspector general, a headquarters labor relations executive used his position and authority to send emails to local labor relations managers in the field announcing the release and requesting explanations for any carriers that were not released. This made local supervisors believe it was a demand.

Granting this leave of absence during election periods was considered a long-standing practice in the agency in order for the agency and union to keep in good working relationship. A supervisor in Wisconsin Rapids told investigators "my general understanding is that union LWOP (leave without pay) is generally approved. I don't recall seeing or hearing about anybody denying a union LWOP request."

A total of more than 2,700 days over six states had carriers take off, causing a lot of staffing and overtime issues.

"I had to work, personally, a few of my days off, which to me I'm not really that thrilled about," said Kopp. "But I also had to work many days late and so did a lot of other employees and that caused, not animosity, but a few grumblings just because of the reasons that these people were off because the post office is not supposed to be politically biased."

After contacting the union and leaders within USPS, Kopp had contacted Senators Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin, along with Representative Sean Duffy to see if the problem could be addressed. Johnson was the first to respond, then Duffy. Baldwin never replied.

"We should not have any political bias within any government agency," Sen. Johnson told 7 Investigates. "And that's going to be a difficult thing, I think for this Postmaster General to really grapple with. I think the policies and procedures can be easily fixed with proper education. Correcting that institutional, cultural bias may be more difficult."

USPS has for years provided numerous points of Hatch Act education and awareness, including extensive training, written, oral, and digital communications to employees and local postal leadership, including in 2016.

Postal unions and individual employees are permitted and the law in fact encourages them to maintain political action committees, endorse candidates, and enlist union members to support their electoral agendas on their own time. However, Miles said USPS headquarters and labor relations managers should not enable a union's lawful political activity through official practices and directives that create institutional biases for certain candidates.

Miles found the violation of the Hatch Act as unintentional and based off of a long-standing practice and understanding of the law and relationship between the agency and union. He ruled individual disciplinary action was not needed. Directives and recommendations have been made, however, in which USPS leadership said they will comply fully with.

That includes no longer characterizing NALC's partisan political activity as "union business" and allowing postal employees to take leave without pay for such activities. The deadline for the changes to be fully implemented is August 31.

The Postal Service does not receive any tax dollars for operating expenses and relies on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations.