Jury Ruse Defrauds Postal Service

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2008

Neither wind nor rain nor even ice storms kept Joseph S. Winstead from doing his job as a mail processor for the U.S. Postal Service in Washington. But pretending that he was serving on a jury sure did.

Winstead spent 144 days goofing off from his work at the Brentwood mail processing plant -- by telling his boss that the rigors of jury service prevented him from sorting the mail. Over the course of Winstead's hoax, from fall 2003 to fall 2004, court papers show, the Southeast Washington resident collected $31,000 in pay from the U.S. government that he didn't earn.

Yesterday, Winstead, 52, pleaded guilty to this unusual fraud in the same federal courthouse where he had pretended to be spending so much time on civic duty. The ruse began in October 2003, when Winstead actually was chosen for a jury.

He listened to months of evidence in a trial of an alleged drug gang. But there were days when the court was in recess, and the jury did not meet -- and Winstead never reported to the Postal Service, which was picking up his salary.

Winstead didn't stay on the jury long enough to render a verdict, getting excused just before deliberations started in April 2004. Even though he no longer was going to court, Winstead continued for months to pretend that he was still serving on that jury, drawing his federal salary, prosecutors said.

And he might have gotten away with it, court papers show -- if he hadn't decided to repeat the scam.

In April 2006, Winstead got another summons and once again he wound up on a federal jury at the courthouse in Washington. This time, he submitted paperwork to his bosses showing he had been serving for 40 days when he really worked a fraction of that time.

A supervisor grew suspicious in 2006 and alerted investigators, said U.S. Postal Service spokesman Gerald McKiernan. He said he could not determine what supervisors thought of Winstead's claims in 2003 and 2004.

"We're glad the fraud was detected," McKiernan said. "The system worked."

The investigation led to Winstead's indictment in December and his guilty plea. Winstead confessed that he fabricated courthouse paperwork and sent it to his supervisor. Besides taking responsibility for the first scam, he admitted that in 2006 he got $7,000 in pay that he didn't deserve.

As part of his plea agreement, Winstead will most likely lose his freedom for 8 to 14 months. He probably will have to serve at least half the sentence in prison, according to sentencing guidelines, and the rest probably under house arrest and under electronic monitoring. Winstead also agreed to pay back $38,923.95 to the Postal Service.

It remains unclear how Winstead got away with the scam the first time around in 2003 and 2004. Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Butler, who prosecuted Winstead, declined to comment. Winstead's defense attorneys did not return calls.

But the record in Winstead's indictment and guilty plea shows that fooling his employer with fabricated paperwork wasn't that hard.

Jurors who are government employees are entitled to be paid their full salary when they are summoned to court and selected to serve on a jury. Clerks in the federal courthouse provide each juror with signed attendance sheets showing the days they have reported for duty in the courthouse. On some forms, the dates are printed out, on others they are handwritten.

At the time of the first hoax, the Postal Service was struggling with significant problems and employee anxiety at the mail distribution center. Anthrax contamination had led to the deaths in fall 2001 of postal employees Joseph P. Curseen and Thomas L. Morris. The building was shuttered and workers reported to a site in suburban Maryland. The original facility reopened in December 2003 and was renamed for those who died.

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