Update: Postal Inspectors Say Group's Census Mailing Deceptive But Still Legal

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A solicitation from a group that opposes the U.S. Census Bureau's statistical sampling plan violates the Deceptive Mail Prevention and Enforcement Act, S. 335, which was passed Dec. 12, lawyers at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service said this week. That law, however, doesn't go into effect until next month.

The Southeastern Legal Foundation, a conservative public interest law firm based in Atlanta, sent the mailing, which contains an envelope imprinted with "Important 2000 Census Materials Enclosed." Inside is a letter from foundation president Matthew J. Glavin soliciting money for the group's campaign against the bureau and its sampling plans.

Much of the foundation's mailing, which was sent to 50,000 conservative households in December and another 200,000 late last month, may hit mailboxes at the same time as the census forms, which were sent to most Americans beginning today. The official census material includes a government envelope, a Department of Commerce return address, a Census 2000 logo, as well as the phrase: "U.S. Census form enclosed. Your response required by law."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year against statistical sampling for this year's census to apportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, but the Census Bureau is still using sampling to augment things such as redistricting and federal funding.

"This kind of behavior crosses the line," said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-NY. "When people see that this solicitation is a shameless fake, I know that they will throw it out. But I am afraid that when the real mailing comes, they might throw it out as well."

Maloney, who is the ranking minority member of the House government reform census subcommittee, asked Postmaster General William J. Henderson to investigate what she said "seems to be a clear violation of federal law" against mailings that too closely resemble government documents. However, investigator Dan Mihalko said that "while the mailing doesn't violate the current deceptive mailing act pertaining to government look-alike mailings, it does, in fact, violate the act that was passed on Dec. 12."

When the new law takes effect in April, it will prohibit misleading consumers in sweepstakes mailings and sending any mailing that misrepresents any federal government agency. The current deceptive mailing laws don't address using government insignias.

Mihalko said the inspection service sent a letter last week telling the foundation it "violates the law passed on Dec. 12 and letting them know that any future mailings are going to be in violation."

Glavin maintained that the foundation didn't do anything wrong.

"We do have the words 'Important Census Materials Enclosed,' and, indeed, there are important census materials enclosed, from our perspective. We put things on the envelope to urge people to open them. That's the whole point of mail," he said. "We always review new regulations, and we will certainly conform with the law."

Census Bureau officials said they are concerned with any private mailing that resembles an official census envelope, especially in the midst of the count. There have been look-alike mailings during previous counts by various groups, but Glavin's mailing is the first one they have heard about this year. The bureau is especially concerned because late last month the agency accidentally misaddressed 115 million letters designed to motivate households into promptly filling out and sending back their questionnaires.

The postal service was able to get the letters to the proper addresses, but officials said the snafu may cause some people to not open their envelopes. n

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