I-Team 8: USPS employees stealing mail; targeting of drugs for vets on the rise

(WISH Photo)
(WISH Photo)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Across the country, United States Postal Service and parcel service employees have been caught stealing your mail.

In fact, the number of employees convicted of internal mail theft has increased nearly 36 percent in the past three years, an I-Team 8 investigation has uncovered.

According to the latest semi-annual report delivered to Congress, the U.S. Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General reported that in the past year, 550 employees have been convicted of internal mail theft. That’s up from 352 convictions in 2013. The latest report published on Nov. 30, shows that special agents within the USPS Office of Inspector General closed more than 1,800 investigations into internal mail theft within the past year.

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What are they targeting?

According to the closed substantiated investigative files reviewed by I-Team 8, postal employees have been caught stealing a variety of items — from money orders to coupons to prescription drugs — often being shipped to veterans by their local VA pharmacy.

Jeff Arney, a public information officer with the USPS OIG office in Chicago acknowledged the problem, but told I-Team 8 it’s difficult to determine if the number of theft cases are increasing or if inspectors are getting better at catching the thieves.

I-Team 8 filed a number of open records requests under the Freedom of Information Act seeking details on internal mail thefts investigated by both the USPS and the VA.

What we found:

  • In the past five years, the USPS Office of Inspector General has closed more than 50 substantiated cases of internal mail theft in the Indianapolis area.
  • At least six of the cases investigated in recent years in the Indianapolis area involved parcels of medications being stolen before they could be delivered to veterans in need
  • Across the U.S., more than 16 cases in 2016 were investigated by the VA’s Office of Investigations. Nearly all of those cases involved a USPS worker or employee of another parcel service stealing powerful prescription pain medications that were intended to be shipped to veterans.
  • The problem appears to be so pervasive that the VA changed the way it ships medications to veterans in 2016.

Certified mail is an ‘easy target’

The VA used to require that prescription pain medications were shipped “certified mail,” meaning that recipient had to sign for the package in order to receive the medications.

But I-Team 8 has learned that the VA discovered certified mail made the parcels “an easy target,” according to a VA spokesman.

VA officials acknowledge there is a problem, and in 2016, decided to shift its own mailing policies for prescription medications, I-Team 8 has learned. The VA now ships medications with electronic tracking in an effort to determine that parcels reach their destinations.

Despite the acknowledgment that internal mail thefts are on the rise within the U.S. Postal Service, a public records official within the USPS Office of Inspector General redacted the names of the former USPS employees who had been convicted of theft or official misconduct in records sought by I-Team 8. The official told I-Team 8 the redactions were done out of concern over privacy.

The victims 

Sam Hicks won his battle with cancer. But his fight wages on with diabetes and neuropathy.

“Once a month, I got hydrocodone from the VA. They sent me a pink slip telling me I had to go sign for it. But I never got it. I kept waiting. I called the VA,” Hicks recalled of the 2012 court case that resulted over his missing medications.

It turns out his medications had been stolen by U.S. Postal Service employee who – after being caught leaving the parcels near a storage shed at the Frankfort, Ind. post office – told authorities he was stealing the medications to supplement his own drug habit. The court records show that the employee knew the VA parcels “contained the good stuff.”

The former USPS employee, Thomas Royal, later pleaded guilty to charges of theft and official misconduct and was sentenced to three years in an Indiana prison. Two years of the sentence were probated, and he ultimately had his sentence modified in 2014. I-Team 8 made numerous attempts to find a phone number for Royal but could not reach him. His attorney declined to comment or provide information on his whereabouts.

Another of the victims in the case, James Laflen, didn’t even know he had been a victim.

“No one has ever contacted me about this,” Laflen told I-Team 8 during a recent interview in his home.

Laflen, a Vietnam veteran who says he receives pain medications from the VA, says he is sympathetic towards someone who might want to steal medications. At one time, he was an addict.

“And this past April, we lost my daughter to a heroin overdose. She was 36 years old,” Laflen said.

When asked about the VA’s new policy of sending the parcels without a signature, Laflen said he was somewhat concerned.

“Now they just ship it to you,” he said. “Addicts aren’t stupid.”