Why Is the Postal Inspection Service Investigating the Flint Water Crisis?

I hope to have a further update about the ongoing effort to bury the Flint water crisis before the Oversight and Government Reform hearing on Wednesday morning.

But in the meantime I wanted to point to this passage, helpfully dropped out of the US Attorney’s investigation in Detroit:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation said on Tuesday it was joining a criminal investigation of lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan, exploring whether laws were broken in a crisis that has captured international attention.

Federal prosecutors in Michigan were working with an investigative team that included the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General and the EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit said.

An FBI spokeswoman said the agency was determining whether federal laws were broken, but declined further comment.

I’m actually not at all surprised FBI is involved in this investigation. That sort of comes with the territory of a US Attorney investigation, it seems.

But the US Postal Inspection Service? Here’s the kind of crime they investigate:

Report these issues to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service online:

  • Mail fraud May include scams or deceptive ads via the mail, or postage fraud.
  • Mail theft Under Inquiry Type, select Problem. Under Customer Service, select Support, and Mail Theft. Under Additional Information, explain why your complaint is mail theft-related.
  • Identity theft
  • Unsolicited Sexually Oriented Advertising

If you believe you’re a victim of fraud related to the U.S. Mail, including mailed sweepstakes, lotteries, on-line auctions, work-at-home scams or chain letters, report your concern to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service as mail fraud.

They often get brought in as an investigative partner if the government needs to track what has been mailed, and mail fraud charges can serve as hand add-on charges in cases where someone used the mail to help commit a crime.

I can imagine a lot of things the FBI might be investigating. But I know of no facts, thus far, that involve mail-related crimes.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

8 replies
  1. Pajarito says:

    Perhaps fraud (dishonesty) in required public education notices to all consumers regarding exceedence of lead action levels. http://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPDF.cgi?Dockey=60001N8P.txt

    Notice to all consumers is required when ‘system’ (water treatment and distribution system subject to EPA Regulations) exceeds action levels. These are usually mailed, often with the water bill. Content of the notice is to “educate consumers about lead health effects, sources, and steps to minimize exposure.”

    If there was notice given, perhaps the content was misleading, incomplete or inadequate? These notices must also be copied to US EPA, I believe.

  2. pdaly says:

    My water bill occasionally contains a (state or federally mandated?) safety report that lists parts per million or billion for a long list of unsafe chemicals and bacteria.
    .
    If such reports were sent to Flint residents in their water bills, and if the reports contained factual “errors” meant to reassure the customers of the water’s safety then that could be a use for USPS–especially if investigators could prove the reports were falsified to achieve safe levels.
    .
    Are lies that are spread by private mail systems such as FedEx and UPS exempt from mail fraud investigations?
    If yes, I wonder if this is one reason Republicans have tried to do away with the USPS in the past?

    • scribe says:

      Are lies that are spread by private mail systems such as FedEx and UPS exempt from mail fraud investigations?
      If yes, I wonder if this is one reason Republicans have tried to do away with the USPS in the past?

      .
      Short answer: No. Using FedEx and UPS does not avoid the mail fraud statute; they are considered “private interstate commercial carriers” and are covered by the same statute.
      .
      Rethugs have tried to eliminate the USPS for a long time for several reasons: (1) the employees are unionized and get good benefits; (2) the Postal Service owns many, many pieces of real estate, much of it in extremely-high-value urban locations, which could be flipped for lots of money; (3) there is a lot of money to be made in delivering mail and stuff and the private companies (UPS, FedEx, etc.) want it for themselves, and they give campaign contributions. Unionized federal employees don’t.
      .
      As to the Mail Fraud Statute, 18 USC 1341, the general exposure is 20 years. But note this quote at the end of the statute:
      .

      If the violation occurs in relation to, or involving any benefit authorized, transported, transmitted, transferred, disbursed, or paid in connection with, a presidentially declared major disaster or emergency (as those terms are defined in section 102 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. 5122)), or affects a financial institution, such person shall be fined not more than $1,000,000 or imprisoned not more than 30 years, or both.

      .
      Moreover, the Mail Fraud Statute is a “predicate act” under the federal RICO statute.
      .
      I suspect something bogus went through the mail and the hook starts there for federal jurisdiction.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Thanks for pointing out the right’s longstanding attempts to privatize the postal service. Congress does not have clean hands in that fight. It plays fast and loose with USPS budgets. Apparently this involves, among other things, allocating USPS income to the treasury (in windfall amounts) while claiming that the USPS is running out of money, hence the need for frequent price hikes – all owing to union demands and intransigence don’t you know. The price hikes don’t reduce Congress’s feeding at the trough of a unionized public service. They do, however, help alienate the public from its most frequent intersection with the federal government. And not so coincidentally, frequent USPS price hikes set a higher price floor for the USPS’s private sector cherry-picking competitors.

  3. no one special says:

    Don’t be surprised to see agencies like USPIS looking into (or helping in) such non-traditional investigations. A lot of times, when an assistant US attorney opens a probe, s/he will bring together a broad array of different agencies that have access to unique, agency-specific resources. USPIS has the mail cover program and also the MITS program, first revealed by the NY Times in 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/03/us/postal-service-confirms-photographing-all-us-mail.html

    Second off, the actual mail theft statute is shockingly broad in scope. See 18 USC sec. 1341. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/1341

    Also, even though USPIS doesn’t have a primary investigative mission to look into offenses not tied to the mail, they in fact have the authority to make arrests for *any* federal felony. See 39 CFR 233.1. https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/39/233.1 The agreement that USPIS has with the AG allows for these enhanced authorities, as seen here: https://postalinspectors.uspis.gov/aboutus/laws.aspx – but the text of that agreement is not in the public record as far as I know.

    It’s a common misnomer that federal LE agencies “own” a particular set of charges – not true. It’s entirely up to the assistant US attorney what charges are selected and if the charges are levied by complaint versus an indictment. This lack of actual delineation has been the source of some fantastical inter-agency squabbles over the years, with reports of FBI and ATF agents racing to the scenes of bombings to determine which agency was “primary” on a particular case. See page 3 of this PDF: https://oig.justice.gov/reports/plus/a1001.pdf

    In any event, this is par for the course and pretty mundane IMHO. USPIS is there – most like – to make the FBI’s job easier when a mail cover or MITS check is necessary. It’s a lot easier to have someone with direct access to the resource do it “in house” than farm out the request through formal channels a la “agency to agency”.

    My two and very *personal* cents. Enjoying your writing as usual.

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