Blowing the Investigators' Cover

View this article online at and visit to sign up for free news updates

A 22-year Philadelphia mail carrier failed to convince the appeals court to overturn his firing based on charges of interfering in a criminal investigation and improper conduct toward a postal customer. (Holdsworth v. United States Postal Service, CAFC No. 2011-3214 (nonprecedential) 2/9/12) The facts are taken from the court’s opinion.

The USPS Inspection Service, the FBI and the Department of Health and Human Services were conducting a joint criminal mail fraud investigation. In the course of their activities a USPSIS inspector told Letter Carrier Holdsworth that there would be a “mail cover” process involving some of his customers. (A “mail cover” is defined by USPS as “the process by which a nonconsensual record is made of any data appearing on the outside cover of any sealed or unsealed class of mail matter…to obtain … evidence of commission or attempted commission of a crime.” (Opinion p. 2))

When the investigators executed search warrants on the subjects of the “mail cover,” however, they found to their apparent dismay and dissatisfaction that the targets had been told by Holdsworth that their mail was being watched. (pp. 2-3)

The USPS proposed Holdsworth’s removal for “improper conduct/providing confidential information to a postal customer of a government matter/interference in a criminal investigation.” (p. 3)

Four days later Holdsworth allegedly used profanity toward several customers on his route stemming from the family’s improper handling of mail addressed to others. The agency amended its notice of proposed removal to include a second charge stemming from this incident, namely “improper conduct—inappropriate conduct towards a postal customer.” (p. 3)

The deciding official concluded that removal was appropriate under the circumstances. An arbitrator held a hearing in accordance with the union contract to determine whether there was just cause for the agency’s actions. He concluded that there was and Holdsworth appealed his removal to the Merit Systems Protection Board. The MSPB upheld the removal action and Holdsworth tried his hand with the federal appeals court. (pp. 3-4)

The court has now sided with the agency and sustained the removal of Holdsworth, agreeing with USPS that “substantial evidence supports the conclusion that Holdsworth knew that it was improper to disclose a mail cover to the subjects of the investigation.” (pp. 6-7) The court also turned aside Holdsworth’s argument that removal was too steep a penalty. (p. 7)

Holdsworth v. USPS (2011-3214)

© 2017 Susan McGuire Smith. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Susan McGuire Smith.


About the Author

Susan McGuire Smith spent most of her federal legal career with NASA, serving as Chief Counsel at Marshall Space Flight Center for 14 years. Her expertise is in government contracts, ethics, and personnel law.