‘Sanctity of the Seal’

Post Office Employee Charged with Theft

By JAMES GAGE | Reporter

It’s an all-too-familiar story in Pacific Palisades: A resident goes to retrieve a card or package from their porch or mailbox only to find it missing, destroyed or otherwise compromised.

Reports of these incidents across town have varied from birthday cards missing their scotch-taped $100 bills to $50,000 credit card fraud.

A Pacific Palisades Community Council meeting held at 7 p.m., on Thursday, January 10, at Palisades Branch Library addressed the issue of mail tampering—drawing several residents with complaints against the local USPS office.

The issue became an item on the PPCC agenda in part because of an overwhelming response to a Nextdoor thread that started on October 30, 2018, by Jim Lubinski, who experienced three separate incidents in which cash had been removed from greeting cards sent to him via the mail, which he believed to be stolen by USPS employees.

Over the next couple months, the Nextdoor thread received over 160 replies as posters shared similar experiences: opened mail, fraudulently cashed checks, identity theft, non-receipt issues, fishing scams and more. Some incidents were reported, others were not.

Lubinkski contacted Congressman Ted Lieu’s office and the Office of the Inspector General to bring the issue to their attention.

Janet Turner with Ted Lieu’s office attended and spoke briefly at Thursday’s meeting, along with USPCS Inspection Service’s Stacia Crane, who offered several tips on dealing with mail theft, and Special Agent Adrian Valdez of the USPS Office of the Inspector General (OIG), who reassured residents that an open investigation into the reported incidents was underway.

The new Pacific Palisades Postmaster Uco Johnson was also introduced and spoke at Thursday’s meeting. Johnson had previously been hired in the Palisades in May, but had been immediately detailed out to El Segundo. He is now full-time in the Palisades.

“I’ve been with the Post Office 20 years,” Johnson said. “I’ve been around a long time. We’re eager to make sure the mail service is done correctly. We do encounter staff issues but we’re working on improving that and improving our service. If you come to the Post Office and you are experiencing any problems, you can ask for me. We take all issues seriously—we take theft seriously.”

“If anyone in my facility is stealing, I want them apprehended … you have my information; give me a call and we’ll fix it.”

One resident at the meeting shared his experience having two checks fraudulently cashed just a month apart after depositing them into two separate blue boxes, one on Radcliffe and Carthage Streets and one on La Cruz Drive, across the street from the Post Office.

USPCS Inspection Service’s Stacia Crane responded to the resident, assuring him that employees were “vetted … monitored, and trained.” She also advised those in attendance to hand their mail directly to a carrier, to use a gel pen when writing checks (to avoid check washing) and also to not send cash through the mail.

“There are criminals out there getting the homeless and the drug users to go and steal the mail, and they turn that mail into their dealers and swap it for drugs,” she said at the meeting. “The drug dealer has more time to steal that identity and actually wash the checks … it’s the kingpins that are ones putting this all together, it’s not the carriers. There are different carriers. The common denominator isn’t them.

“People have been fishing out of mailboxes for a long time. They’re getting more sophisticated, but we’re developing more sophisticated ways of stopping them.”

Agent Valdez assured residents the OIG’s mission was to “ensure the efficiency, accountability and integrity of the postal service, its employees and the mail system.”

“We will get to the bottom of it,” Valdez said at the meeting. “We’ve already made one arrest, though it doesn’t speak to the whole administration.”

“As an agency we’re mandated by our headquarters to address every single allegation that comes in … We want you to believe in the postal service; the sanctity of the seal is important. We want you to know that whatever you need, it’s going to get from point A to point B.”

On Friday, January 11, the Palisadian-Post was made aware that a case had been presented to the U.S. Attorney General’s office pertaining to mail theft in the Pacific Palisades. Agent Valdez confirmed the finding in an email.

“On December 4, 2018, a Grand Jury in the Central District of California issued a True Bill Indictment charging a former postal employee with a two-count violation of Title 18 U.S.C. 1344 (2): Bank fraud and a two count violation of Title 18 U.S.C. 1709: Theft of Mail by Postal Service Employee,” it wrote.

Valdez urged those with information on possible mail-related crimes to call the USPS OIG Hotline or email hotline@uspsoig.gov. Victims of mail theft should call investigator A. Shelton at 562-343-9892 or email ashelton@uspsoig.gov.