It’s a story the U.S. Postal Service did not want us to tell you: Sexual assaults committed not just by customers and strangers, but by postal employees against other postal employees.
A thick layer of snow had just dropped onto the road as we climbed a mountain near Albany, New York, to meet Diane Caruso-Ruston.
“We’re pretty tough up here,” she laughed as she let us in the door. Caruso-Ruston explained she had to be tough to work more than a decade inside a large postal processing plant where they sort mail 24 hours a day. “The culture of the Post Office is, it’s an old boys club.”
Good at getting along with the guys working alongside her, Caruso-Ruston said she thought she was going to get a promotion when she walked into one of her managers’ offices. “Next thing I know he pushes me up against the wall. And he pushes down my left side of my pants, you know those stretchy pants? He licked my leg. I got startled. And then he took his thing out and told me to kiss it.”
The married mother of two said she pushed her way out of the room and quickly wrote down everything that happened before filing a formal complaint through her union.
That, she said, is when the retaliation began. “Before I even went into the room to be interviewed, one of the supervisors grabbed me and told me ‘You better keep your mouth shut if you know what’s good for you.'”
Caruso-Ruston said the retaliation grew worse as a team of investigators tried to get her to sign an incorrect statement of facts. She refused.
And that, not the assault, is what finally broke her. “It’s the cover up, the intimidation that they do.”
The News4 I-Team has uncovered a list of reported sexual assaults against postal employees across the country never before released to the public, including more than a dozen in the D.C. region within the past few years.
Records we obtained show the assaults range from men groping and flashing mail carriers on their routes to more serious attacks, like the violent rape of a postal clerk in Silver Spring, Maryland.
But then we saw entry after entry labeled “Sexual Assault by Employee.” When we added it all up, we realized one out of every five sexual assaults against postal employees were committed by other postal employees.
Noelle Whalen said her managers repeatedly ignored multiple complaints she made about being harassed, stalked and finally sexually assaulted by one of her supervisors inside a processing plant in Connecticut. “To ask somebody to get down on their knees in the middle of the aisle in the middle of a workroom floor to give you oral sex, if that’s not sexual harassment, then what is?” She explained, “This is a person I had asked numerous times not to touch me, not to go near me, not to speak inappropriately to me, and then he attacked me.”
Whalen kept all of her paperwork, but when we asked the U.S. Postal Service for its records on the investigation of her attack, we received hundreds of blank and redacted pages.
But USPS assured us it has a zero tolerance policy for sexual assault.
Sexual violence experts like Maya Raghu with the organization Futures Without Violence said, “When the government is an employer and doesn’t follow its own rules, that makes this sense of betrayal or wrongness somehow worse because people expect the federal government to follow its own rules.”
Raghu said the list could be much longer because sex assault is one of the most underreported crimes.
And as we discovered, Whalen’s and Caruso-Ruston’s cases were investigated by their human resources department, meaning their cases were never reported to the Postal Service’s internal police force and never made it to our list.
Even though they worked in different plants in different states, both women said their attackers were allowed to retire while they continued to be retaliated against until they both went on medical leave.
“If it’s unwanted, then in most places that’s probably some sort of battery,” Raghu explained. “Which is a crime.”
To get answers, we repeatedly asked to interview Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe.
Until, in August, we were told by a spokeswoman if we tried to approach him, we could be investigated and arrested for threatening a postal employee.
Which is how we ended up at a news conference at the Postal Museum two weeks ago as the postmaster general released a new holiday stamp. We counted at least 11 different people in his team scrambling to keep us from interviewing their boss, pleading with us not to approach him.
So, we asked him, “Has your staff told you we’ve been trying to get comment from you for the last six months about violent crimes being committed against postal employees? Did you know we’ve been trying to get comment from you?”
Donahoe quickly said, “No.” He then explained USPS uses an extensive process to investigate violence against his employees. “There’s nothing ever that is left uninvestigated. We prosecute people to the fullest extent of the law.”
News4 I-Team reporter Tisha Thompson then asked, “Some of your employees have told me that after they were sexually assaulted, they were retaliated against when they made a complaint and that they just don’t feel the Postal Service is doing enough to protect women in particular from sexual assault. So I’ve got to ask, what is your response to that?”
Donahoe said, “The Postal Service has a number of avenues for employees to air issues, whether it’s the OIG hotline, the grievance process, the EEOC. We’ve watched these carefully over the years and taken them very seriously and acted on it.”
Thompson then said, “I’m sure, as the boss, it also concerns you that your employees are saying that. What do you want to tell them?”
“Our employees are safe,” Donahoe said. “We provide a safe environment; we provide an environment where if there is a problem, we respond to it.”