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Suspicious Letters to Lawmakers Prompt House-Senate Alert

By Billy House

National Journal

WASHINGTON -- House and Senate members were alerted on Wednesday that a House member's district office and at least two senators’ state offices have received threatening mail this week containing a suspicious powdery substance, all later determined to be harmless (see GSN, Aug. 16, 2011).

Memos sent to members’ offices from the sergeants-at-arms of both chambers notified the lawmakers and their staffs that two of the letters had been received on Tuesday, and that another similar letter was received by the second Senate state office on Wednesday.

While the alert memos did not mention which lawmakers had received the packages, three of the incidents occurred in Ohio, Indiana, and Washington state involving offices of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senators Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

West Chester, Ohio, Police Sgt. John Kleinfeldt said in an interview that a suspicious letter sent to Boehner’s office in that municipality -- either on Saturday or on Tuesday, but not opened until about 3:15 p.m. on Tuesday --led the staff at Boehner’s office there to call police. A note in the package stated that the powdery substance was corn starch, later confirmed by a HAZMAT team. Kleinfeldt would not elaborate on what else the note said, and said the FBI is leading the investigation. He also said he has been told that a similar package was sent to an Indianapolis office.

In that city, press reports based on a news release from the Indianapolis Fire Department said a white powdery substance was delivered on Tuesday to Coats’ downtown offices, but the substance was later deemed to be harmless. A HAZMAT team was also dispatched in that incident, and the material was transported to the lab at the Indiana State Board of Health for further testing, according to the reports. Coats' office confirmed the story on Wednesday.

"Senator Coats' Indianapolis office received a suspicious envelope yesterday and reported it immediately to local police and the U.S. Capitol Sergeant at Arms," said Tara DiJulio, a spokeswoman for Coats, in an e-mail to National Journal on Wednesday. "The tests on the envelope came back negative and there is no indication of a threat. The origin of the letter is under investigation by the FBI."
 
"Senator Coats was visiting with Hoosiers in Bedford, Ind. at the time of the incident," DiJulio added.

And on Wednesday, a suspicious letter was sent to Murray’s office in Seattle. A HAZMAT team was again called, and the powdery substance in that package also was determined to be a harmless mixture that included corn starch. 

Spokesmen for Murray and Boehner did not comment in response to inquiries on Wednesday night.

A memo to Senate offices from Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer warns: “The author of these letters has indicated that additional letters containing a powdery substance will be arriving at more Senate offices and that some of these letters may contain an actual harmful material.”

A separate memo sent out to House members’ offices by the office of House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving states: “Although all letters received thus far have proved harmless, it is essential that we treat every piece of suspicious mail as if it may, in fact, be harmful.”

In particular, the memos say congressional and other offices should pay special attention to letters postmarked from Portland, Ore., and containing a specific address. 

Gainer’s memo goes on to state that authorities at the Capitol are “working closely with federal and local law enforcement in this ongoing investigation.”

In the meantime, House and Senate members’ offices are being advised that if any mail is received by them marked with the Portland return address, it should remain unopened and local authorities should be contacted immediately. They also are being told to notify the U.S. Capitol Police Threat Assessment Section.

Offices are reminded that “under no circumstances” should anyone ever bring unscreened mail or packages into their offices.

“These incidents are reminders that we must remain vigilant in handling mail, recognizing suspicious items, and knowing what immediate actions to employ if faced with suspicious mail in the office,” states the memo sent to House members’ offices. “Law enforcement sources have advised us that other such letters may be in the mail stream and to be watchful for the following return address on mail arriving at House offices,” the memo states, going on to give a Portland street address for "The MIB, L.L.C."

Television comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert also received letters stating that similar powder-filled mailings would be sent to 100 senators and that 10 percent of them would contain "lethal pathogens," CBS News has reported.

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