Lawmakers want to know why Christmas mail being delivered in May

Wednesday, May 8th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Lawmakers still receiving Christmas mail confronted Postal Service officials who insisted Wednesday that Capitol Hill delivery is back to normal following last fall's anthrax scare.

``We're getting Christmas cards every other day in our office,'' Rep. John T. Doolittle, R-Calif., told postal officials at a House Administration Committee hearing.

Rep. Jim Davis, D-Fla., held up two letters with handwritten addresses: ``This is mail that just came in. It's dated in December.''

Sylvester Black, manager of capital metro operations for the Postal Service, acknowledged it takes slightly longer to deliver mail because of new safety procedures. But he said lawmakers should not be getting months-old mail.

``By the first week of February, the backlog had been eliminated,'' he said, adding that because some offices could not handle the increased mail traffic, the Postal Service had to store the mail for a short time.

``We are no longer storing any mail for a government agency,'' he said.

Committee Chairman Bob Ney, R-Ohio, was incredulous. Holding up two letters _ one dated Feb. 5 and the other Dec. 12 _ he said somewhere in the system, there has got to be a backlog.

``There's still mail somewhere. What you hear is the backlog is taken care of, but it isn't,'' he said. ``Something is going on. This is the twilight zone of mail.''

Ney said a sample of House mail collected Monday showed 17 percent was postmarked in March or earlier.

``Where have they been? Where are they now and how do we get them?'' asked Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the ranking Democrat on the committee.

Black said any late mail turning up now probably was incorrectly addressed or inadvertently mixed in with newspapers and magazines, which have a lower priority.

All mail service to Capitol Hill offices was stopped for six weeks after an anthrax-contaminated letter was discovered last October in an office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. A second anthrax letter was discovered later addressed to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

The FBI is still investigating.

The Postal Service said Wednesday it has signed contracts for more than $2 million for the cleanup of its anthrax-contaminated Brentwood facility, which sorts and distributes mail for the nation's capital. It has been closed since the fall.

The Trenton, N.J., mail sorting and distribution facility also is closed because of anthrax contamination. The total cost of the cleanup has been put at $35 million _ $22 million for work in Washington and $13 million in New Jersey

To protect against contamination, all mail to Congress, the White House and federal agencies in Washington is sent to a postal facility in New Jersey to be irradiated.

Black said the irradiation only adds a couple of days to the delivery time and all mail should arrive at its destination in seven days to 10 days.

But James Eagen, chief administrative officer for the House, said once mail reaches Capitol Hill it takes another four to five business days for it to be tested and quarantined.