Inspectors for the United States Postal Service have been ordered by Postmaster General Marvin Runyon to stop posing as journalists for investigative purposes.
Runyon notified the Society of Professional Journalists of the policy change after SPJ protested in July the conduct of two inspectors in Michigan in 1994 and 1995. The inspectors posed as journalists while seeking to determine if a former postal employee's worker's compensation claim was valid.
The actions of the inspectors were first reported by The Saginaw News. Later, the congressional liaison for the Postal Service told Editor & Publisher that the practice was not widespread.
In its letter to Runyon, SPJ noted that while the conduct of the inspectors may have been legal and hopefully isolated, it was "totally unacceptable and a clear violation of common ethics" by an agency in which the public must bestow its trust.
In his letter of response to SPJ, Runyon said the concerns raised by the Society "warrant serious consideration" and that after discussing the matter with his chief postal inspector, "it was agreed that while the assumption of false identities was legal, the ethics questions you have raised require serious evaluation."
"Accordingly, postal inspectors were advised on August, 11, 1995, to not assume the identity of journalists for investigative purposes," Runyon said.
Runyon said the Michigan incident was an isolated one.
The Postmaster's quick and positive response was hailed by SPJ President Reginald Stuart.
"We are very glad Mr. Runyon took prompt and appropriate action to stop this kind of nonsense behavior by postal inspectors," said Stuart, assistant news editor in Washington for Knight-Ridder Newspapers. "We only hope that six months or a year from now, when this incident has faded from the radar, that this kind of conduct is not repeated. It's not in the best interest of the Postal Service to engage in this."
The unethical conduct by the postal inspectors was discovered in an affidavit filed in the U.S. District court in Bay city and unsealed June 7. The document said that two inspectors, identified as S.T. McGinnis and S.P. Gill, approached people in Saginaw Township on Dec. 22, 1994 and April 12, 1995, identifying themselves as reporters for the Small Business Quarterly. The two inspectors knew they were not reporters and that no such publication exists.