February 7, 2006

You had mail: Police investigate theft of letter at Metro Council

The mailboxes for Metro Council members at City Hall look like the boxes teachers use at elementary schools or universities. They’re cubbyholes with open fronts. There’s no real privacy. It’s a typical setup, and it infers a certain level of honesty — the honor system, if you will — that you figure people in leadership positions should handle with no problem.

But someone on or near the Metro Council apparently had a little trouble with that.

Metro Police investigators were at City Hall last week looking into an incident that may constitute mail fraud, a felony, according to Metro Council president Kevin Kramer. Kramer would not elaborate on the investigation, saying that police have asked Council members not to discuss it.

It’s something of a bizarre scene that’s not occurred before in the Council’s three-year history, with undertones of betrayal within the Democratic caucus.

The object of the theft was a resignation letter from former Democratic caucus communications director Jennifer Brislin.

Brislin, who worked 13 years in city government, would not get into specifics about why she resigned, but said, “I guess I had run my course.” She said Monday that she is spending time with her family and working on the state House campaign of Metro Councilman Ron Weston.

Brislin said she was surprised anyone would tamper with her resignation letter, which she said was brief and lacking anything controversial.

“I have seen letters of resignation where people spill their guts,” she said. “They draw blood on their way out. (Mine was) just about as blasé as they come.”

Equally strange is the fact that former Council president Barbara Shanklin, who recently lost her position to Republican Kramer after three Democrats backed him, admitted to the theft without really saying she did it. In an interview with WLKY-TV late last month, she said, “I’m willing to take responsibility, or do whatever it takes to stop (the investigation).” Shanklin did not return phone calls seeking comment this week.

No one familiar with the case seems to understand why the letters were taken.

Tina Ward-Pugh is one of five Democrats who went to Kramer and requested an investigation after they discovered they were missing mail (the others are Bob Henderson, Rick Blackwell, Ron Weston and Madonna Flood). Ward-Pugh said their request had nothing to do with what was in the letter.

“This isn’t about the content or what we’re talking about,” she said Monday. “This is about the theft of mail out of a mailbox.”

She said some Council members consider the investigation a joke. Kramer’s response, however, was serious.

Following Council protocol, he went to the County Attorney’s office for a legal opinion about whether taking mail from an office box constitutes a crime and, if so, what sort. Bill Patteson, spokesman for the County Attorney’s office, said his office recommended going to police, and was split about the pending legal question: Are boxes in a private office considered mailboxes in the eyes of the law?

Kramer explained that the boxes are not only for interoffice mail but also for items delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. Council mail is delivered to the City Hall mailroom and dispersed by the staff there, he said. Because U.S. mail winds up in the boxes, the legal ramifications could be serious.

Kramer was actually more philosophical about problems the incident raised.

“We should expect some level of confidentiality,” he said last week.
“At the very least, if a letter was removed, it’s a violation of that.”