A sharp-eyed postal inspector boarding a Presidential Airlines flight between Washington and Orlando, Fla., was astonished to see Peter E. Voss, vice chairman of the Postal Service's Board of Governors, sitting in coach class.
Voss belonged in first class, the inspector thought. He turned out to be right. In fact, Voss' travel arrangements were already being investigated by postal inspectors.
Undone by his own sleuths, Voss, who served as co-chairman of President Reagan's 1980 Ohio campaign, ultimately was convicted of defrauding the government out of at least $43,000 in travel expenses.
According to court records, Voss had repeatedly billed the agency for first-class airline tickets but traveled coach class under a variety of false names, pocketing the difference. Voss also pleaded guilty late last year to accepting about $25,000 in kickbacks relating to $250 million in contracts for automated postal equipment.
Postmaster General Fired
Government prosecutors said Voss' indiscretions led to the firing of Postmaster General Paul N. Carlin after one year of service. Carlin was fired in January, 1986, for being too slow in implementing automated mail handling. In his defense, Carlin later claimed that he was right in not having awarded equipment contracts to a Texas company that hired a friend of Voss to represent it. The friend, Michigan public relations executive John R. Gnau Jr., also pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge for making illegal payments to Voss.
The trio's demise focused rare attention on a little-known corps of Postal Service investigators whose work in recent years has helped convict targets ranging from child pornographers to major stockbrokers.
Live Up to Nickname
"They are the unsung heroes of the federal investigatory agencies," said Al Murray, an assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the massive 1985 check-kiting case against the E.F. Hutton brokerage house from his Harrisburg, Pa., office. Murray and other prosecutors said postal inspectors truly live up to their agency's nickname--"The Silent Service."
Although the Postal Inspection Service is the nation's oldest law enforcement agency, most people have no idea what a postal inspector does, perhaps because the 1,900 inspectors are outnumbered by nearly 9,000 FBI agents.
This year, said Inspector C.W. Lawrence, manager of the service's planning branch in Washington, inspectors will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the appointment of the colonies' first postmaster, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was postmaster of Philadelphia, but he was assigned to regulate several New England post offices and bring "the postmasters to account."
Since then, postal inspectors have protected mail carried by steamboat, railroad and the Pony Express. Congress passed the first mail fraud statutes in 1872 to combat a plethora of swindles after the Civil War.
Unscrupulous salesmen used the mails to sell worthless swamp land across the South and fake gold nuggets from non-existent mines. Chain letters were also popular more than a century ago, according to Lawrence. The same basic laws are used to prosecute a variety of frauds today.
"Postal inspectors have the ability to do the complex, intellectual part of an investigation, plus the cops and robbers part of it," said Assistant U.S. Atty. David A. Katz, who works in Los Angeles. In the last two years, Katz has prosecuted about 60 people investigated by postal inspectors.
While some inspectors specialize in complex investment fraud cases, other inspectors investigate medical and insurance frauds. Inspectors pursue people who send mail bombs. They audit all Postal Service operations and provide security for postal facilities and trucks. And they investigate crimes committed by or against postal employees, including the murdering of mail carriers.
Their territory includes 30,000 Postal Service outlets, and "even McDonald's doesn't have as many," Lawrence quipped.
Depending on one's assignment, a postal inspector's day-to-day activities range from serving subpoenas and arresting suspects to plowing through mountains of canceled checks to reconstruct a paper trail of missing funds.
And while other agencies periodically audit their own operations, rarely do those audits lead to the imprisonment of their leaders, according to prosecutors.
Shunning bureaucracy, postal inspectors operate in small teams assigned to 36 divisions across the country. Postal inspectors also differ from FBI agents in their approach to cases. The most striking difference is an inspector's ability to stay with a case from the first complaint until the jury returns a verdict. Inspectors can travel anywhere to interview suspects or collect records. FBI agents, on the other hand, are generally limited to a geographical area and often must ask a fellow agent in another city for help.