Judges, prosecutors and other employees at the main federal building routinely deposit both personal and business mail in a metal box on the first floor near the judges' private rear elevator.
Over the past month, Justice Department investigators dropped in sealed urine samples bound for lab testing. Conscientious clerks deposited their tax filings weeks in advance of the deadline. Secretaries mailed time- sensitive credit card payments.
And through April, as the box filled and the mail went nowhere, the volume of gripes from the building's occupants steadily rose. Fifth Circuit Appeals Judge Jerry Smith says that after another jurist complained that mail wasn't reaching its destination, the courts' longtime postal carrier Ralph Chavarria finally investigated. When Chavarria opened the box, he found it crammed with the collection of mail accumulating for the past month.
"This is truly appalling," says U.S. District Judge David Hittner. He notes that the internal crimes division of the postal inspectors joined in the investigation of why that mail was never picked up. Postal Service consumer affairs spokeswoman Polly Heath says the matter is still being probed.
She explains that the box was not a standard drop-off point but rather a "courtesy" box outside the regular routes. When the pickup system recently changed, a new carrier claims, she was told by superiors that the box was no longer in service. Heath says that so far no one at the station servicing the federal building, including manager Sandra Kelley, is admitting to giving the carrier erroneous information.
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"It was really just a huge mistake on our part, and we're so apologetic," says Heath. To prevent future problems, the courtesy box now has a bar code label that must be scanned every day or postal officials will be automatically alerted.
After the stale mail was retrieved from the box, postal officials held it to give users the option of taking the mail back or sending it on.
Heath acknowledges that the box included priority packages with urine samples, as well as at least four tax filings. She says Postal Service officials have composed letters of explanation for customers to give the IRS. "If that's not sufficient for the IRS, then we will go ahead and develop something further."
Judge Smith declined to comment on whether his own mail had been caught in the box. He did say that his taxes got paid on time because he wisely mailed his IRS forms from a different location.