Tag Archives: Fact checking

Terror at the post office: local reporting raises more questions than it answers

As a story, the recent news about the Orlando postal worker, now resting in Irondequoit, who fell ill after handling a suspicious package has a little bit of everything: a deathly ill man; a caring mother; a government cover up; a terror angle. It’s an incredible tale. Someone, somewhere is cutting a check for a made-for-TV movie.

You very much want to believe “The Jeff Lill Story.” And so do I. What man-fighting-massive-bureaucracy-in-search-of-the-truth story wouldn’t I want to believe? None of them, never. But therein lies in the rub, because I think there’s reason for caution on the story, the movie, everything.

The story appears to be contradicted, or at least not fully supported, by the documentary evidence made available so far.

Considering the source…

To review, the story claims that Jeffrey A. Lill, a postal worker, handled a broken package from Yemen. Spilling out from the package were wires and tubes, which dripped a syrupy brown liquid that burned Lill’s arms, nose and throat and later made him very ill, causing organ failure and memory lapses.

Reporters at the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR) and a journalism school grant program at the University of California-Berkeley dug into his claim and wrote the account most people read this weekend. It was distributed everywhere by the Associated Press and published locally by the Democrat and Chronicle.

D&C staff wrote a separate short feature on the postal worker’s mother, and they apparently edited the story, but didn’t report it. Neither did the hundreds of other media outlets which published the AP’s version this weekend. Some outlets, including Reuters and WHEC, have begun to publish independent reports, but they mostly rely on Lill.

.. and the story…

To back up his claim, the original story relies on an email from Lill to his boss on the eve of the Feb. 4, 2011, incident.

But there is no suspicious package from Yemen in Lill’s email. He mentions only a strong odor, and describes his response to it this way: “I immediately cleared the area of employees (sent to breakroom) and took the gpc [general purpose container] of empty sacks outside to the Haz-Mat shed.”

No Yemen, no tubes, no oozing brown liquid, no nothing. The sacks are described as empty.

Now, it’s possible that Lill saw all those things but simply didn’t mention it in that particular email. And left untouched are the two whistleblowing employees the reporters say they confirmed the story with. But exactly which parts of the story those employees were able to confirm suddenly becomes very important.

One of them, Paz Oquendo, is described in Lill’s email as reporting the suspicious odor to Lill. She’s also quoted in the story, saying the odor was unbearable. But did she see the package from Yemen? Did the other whistleblowing postal worker? The story doesn’t make that clear.

In addition to calling the Yemen angle into question, the evidence also conflicts with other elements of the story.

The story says that the “USPS briefly stopped accepting mail from” Yemen after an October 2010 bomb scare, but the Postal Service’s website and a spokesperson said today that service from Yemen was never restored. It would have still been suspended at the time Lill says he encountered the package. Whether a package from Yemen containing wires and tubes would have likely made it to Lill’s sorting facility remains an open question.

The story also repeatedly calls on the Postal Service to investigate the incident, and hammers in that there hasn’t been an investigation. But a letter(PDF) from the service’s lawyers to local congresswoman Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, published by the D&C with the story, says that there was a thorough investigation that found Lill’s claims to be unsubstantiated.

Perhaps the authors didn’t consider the Postal Service’s investigation to merit the name investigation, but it’s odd that they don’t address that.

It doesn’t help the Postal Service’s credibility that, since it expects a lawsuit from Lill any minute, it’s very careful when discussing the specifics of whatever investigation it says was conducted.

What few specifics it does discuss provide an alternate story: On Feb. 2, a bottle broke, spilling a disinfectant in the sorting facility. The disinfectant was cleaned up, but some remained. An employee reported an odor (possibly Lill or one of his coworkers) and found the remainder on Feb. 4. The contaminated material was removed and no employees were injured.

That Lill is suffering from a terrible undiagnosed illness, and that he and his coworkers encountered a foul-smelling problem at the sorting facility that Feb. 4 day seems to be without question.

But whether the Postal Service’s specific version of events or Lill’s is supported more completely now depends on Oquendo and her colleagues’ recollection. If they remember the odor and Lill’s response, but not the package from Yemen, it’s down to a claim from a bedridden man who everyone wants to believe, but everyone ought to know that they shouldn’t do so without caution.