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Former USPS board chair questions timing, motives for mail policy changes

PBS Newshour (with video) | August 17, 2020

Transcript (click on link below for video)

Judy Woodruff: The battle surrounding changes at the U.S. Postal Service is intensifying. And, as William Brangham reports, House Democrats are planning legislation to block recent moves by the postmaster general, and making changes to their summer calendar to address the issue. William Brangham: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said yesterday she'd call members back from their August recess to try and pass legislation as soon as this weekend to block what they allege is the Trump administration's sabotage of the Postal Service in the run-up to the election. Given the pandemic, it's expected that millions more Americans will try and vote by mail, rather than go in person to their polling places. President Donald Trump: When you do all mail-in-voting ballots, you are asking for fraud. William Brangham: President Trump consistently makes false claims about voting by mail, and has threatened to block any bill that contains emergency funds for the post office. Newly appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy will testify before the House next week. Prior to his appointment, DeJoy was a major fund-raiser for the Republican Party and has a multimillion-dollar stake in a company that contracts with the Postal Service.

Among the issues Democrats will address, the suspension of overtime for postal workers, which has already caused mail delays across the country, the decommissioning of hundreds of high-capacity mail-sorting machines, and the removal of some residential mail boxes, and the Postal Service 's warning to 46 states and Washington, D.C., that, because of tight deadlines, it might not be able to deliver all mail-in ballots in time. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.: I am deeply, deeply concerned about Trump's effort to undermine American democracy by defunding the Postal Service. William Brangham: DeJoy and his supporters say these moves are necessary cost-cutting, noting, the Postal Service lost $9 billion last year. And, DeJoy notes, many of these reforms were recommended before he took the top job. Yesterday, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows rejected the accusation that the president is meddling in the election. Mark Meadows: I will give you that guarantee right now. The president of the United States is not going to interfere with anybody casting their vote in a legitimate way. William Brangham: And, today, on his way from the White House, the president again warned about mail-in voting, but said he'd done nothing to slow down mail service. For more on the controversy surrounding the USPS, I'm joined now by a man who used to help run it.

S. David Fineman served as chairman of the Board of Governors of the U.S. Postal Service under both the Clinton and Bush administrations. The board oversees the service and appoints the postmaster general. He's now chairman of board of the nonpartisan Fair Elections Center. David Fineman, thank you very much for being here. I mentioned some of these changes that the new postmaster general has been — the new postmaster general has been instituting, eliminating overtime, which has caused some delays, decommissioning some of this equipment, closing some mailboxes. What are we to make of those changes?

S. David Fineman: Let's just assume that you needed the changes, and let's just assume you needed to upgrade certain systems.

It seems to me that there's two problems here, one of which is that the postmaster general, before he implemented changes, you would think that he would come to the American public. You would think that he would make a public announcement of these changes before the Board of Governors of the United States Postal Service.

And you would think that he would probably go to the elected officials and tell them what was going to happen: You know, we're going to take make boxes from this area. We're going to take mailboxes from that area. We're going to take some sorting machines from this plant. We're going to do certain things. We can't afford to have overtime. That would be the first thing that you would think he would do.

The second thing, it seems to me, is, why is he doing this now? We're in the middle of a pandemic. People rely… William Brangham: Meaning, of all times, this is the worst time to be doing things like this? S. David Fineman: Absolutely. People rely on their — on delivery of the mail six days a week. Veterans get their prescription drugs through the mail. Other people were going to get Social Security checks. Small businesses rely every day on receiving checks from their customers, sending out invoices. And this is a time when seniors are being told not to leave their home. William Brangham: Now, the postmaster general says, this is about cost-cutting, and that some of these recommendations came prior to his arrival, and he's just instituting them. The Democrats, on the other hand, look at this, just as you say, during a pandemic and see election sabotage. Where do you come down on that issue? What's the intentionality here? S. David Fineman: Let me just say I'm a practicing lawyer, you know, and lawyers put facts together and then come to a conclusion. So, we take the fact that he is taking out mailboxes, taking out sorting equipment, and then we take the fact that the president of the United States is talking about how there's going to be fraud, although he can't identify it. You know, he hasn't been able to tell us where that fraud is coming from. And a federal judge has asked him to show what the fraud is, and he hasn't been able to do it. When we take that fact, and we put it together with the fact of what the postmaster general is doing, we come to the conclusion that maybe somebody is trying to sabotage the election. William Brangham: Is it your sense the post office can handle this coming surge of mail-in ballots? We have heard the comparison that during, say, the Christmas holiday season, the mail service handles billions of pieces of mail. At the very most, mail-in ballots would be tens of millions, so far less. Even with all these changes, do you think the USPS can still handle this tidal wave of ballots coming through the mail? S. David Fineman: Absolutely. There's no reason to believe that they can't. And the post people — the people who work at the post office, they are trained to do their jobs. They care about their jobs. And they have been the essential workers on the front lines for the United States Postal Service. Over 3,000 of them have been stricken with this deadly disease. Over 60 of them have died. But they're there to deliver the mail. And they do it every day to every household throughout the country. William Brangham: I mentioned earlier that the postmaster general has this multimillion-dollar stake in a company that does business with the post office. Some have argued it's a potential competitor to the post office. And some have said that's a clear conflict of interests. Others have said, no, that's actually the relevant business expertise you want in someone who's running the post office. Where do you come down on that issue? Is this a conflict? S. David Fineman: I'm not — I'm not quite sure whether it is a conflict or it isn't a conflict. But I'll tell you what I would like to know. I would like to know what the Board of Governors did in vetting this — vetting Mr. DeJoy. I'd like to know what they looked into. I'd like to know what they saw. And I'd like to know why they came to the conclusion they did that he could serve as the postmaster general. William Brangham: All right, S. David Fineman, former chairman of the U.S. post office's Board of Governors, thank you very much for your time. S. David Fineman: Thank you for having me. Link to video segment:

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