CALL7 Investigation: Gov't Made Federal Case Over $78

U.S. Attorney's Office: We Had Obligation To Pursue Case

The federal government spent tens of thousands of tax dollars investigating and prosecuting a veteran postal worker over a shortage of funds at the Park Hill post office.

The case included dozens of hours of video surveillance as well as witness interviews, a grand jury proceeding, court motions and five days on a federal jury trial in Denver.

The CALL7 Investigators discovered it was over $78.29.

On June 2, the postal worker was found not guilty on all 20 counts.

Despite the cost, the man hours and the result, acting U.S. Attorney David Gaouette told 7NEWS that given the same set of circumstances his office would have done it all again.

The defendant, Nancy Sitzman, said she was relieved the jury found in her favor. “I was just hoping that the truth would come through."

Sitzman was a postal service employee for more than 24 years, most recently as a clerk inside Denver's Park Hill post office.

She told CALL7 Investigator Tony Kovaleski: “The first time I was in court and they said the United States of America versus Nancy Sitzman, my knees just buckled.”

The USPS Office of Inspector General’s investigation began more than a year ago after reports there was money and stamps missing from the Park Hill post office.

The postal service has no way of tracking individual stamps, so surveillance video and cash register logs were used to try and catch workers in the act.

According to Sitzman’s attorneys, the OIG investigator believed she was taking money and/or stamps.

On September 5, 2008 Sitzman was issued a citation by the OIG investigator for “misappropriation of postal funds.”

The U.S. Attorney’s office offered her a plea bargain including a deferred judgment, but according to Sitzman and her attorneys, the postal service said if Sitzman accepted such a plea it could not guarantee her job or her pension.

Sitzman said she was innocent and rejected the plea offer.

Gaouette’s statement to 7NEWS said: “Ms. Sitzman exercised her Constitutional right to a jury trial so the case continued to move forward.” He also explained the government won all the pre-trial motions.

Sitzman’s attorney, John Zodrow, said the U.S. Attorney’s office tried to bully his client into a plea deal. “They were clear to her that if she did not take the plea agreement they would seat a grand jury and indict her on felony counts and it was her rejecting their plea agreement that caused all of this to occur.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office did present the evidence to a federal grand jury, which handed up a 20-count federal indictment.

Three counts of misappropriation of funds and 17 counts of making false statements.

According to the indictment, the false statements covered each time Sitzman submitted her cash register log or “financial report PS Form 1412,” on which the government said she falsely represented her postal sale transactions.

The surveillance video, obtained by the CALL7 Investigators, showed Sitzman routinely selling individual stamps to customers while she rang up “no sale.”

Sitzman admits she rang up individual stamps as “no sale” but said when the entire book of stamps was sold she would then scan the barcode on the empty book.

“It shows on the [surveillance] tape. Every time I put the money in the drawer. So then I would scan the whole book of stamps when the whole book was gone,” said Sitzman, before her trial.

During the trial, jurors watched the surveillance video. It never showed her pocketing money.

“I didn't steal anything from the post office,” she said. “Not a dime, not a penny, not a stamp. The only thing I ever took home from the post office was my paycheck.”

After deliberating for less than six hours, the jury sided with Sitzman.

“Not guilty on all 20 counts. Why?” Kovaleski asked juror Richard Hartman.

“There was not enough evidence to convict,” said Hartman.

Five jurors agreed to speak with 7NEWS following the verdict and all five were critical of the U.S. Attorney’s decision to pursue a federal case out of less than $100.

“When we were first selected, and they started listing off the indictments, I started adding them up in my head and saying, wait a minute, this is $78. Why am I here?" said juror Wendi Batchelor.

Jury foreman Stan Cooper told 7NEWS: “Several of the jurors had a light hearted moment at one time and said, why don't we just take up a collection and we'll put in about $80. We'll give to the judge and we can go home and save a lot of tax money."

The 12 jurors were paid $40 a day for their service, plus parking. That’s more than six times the amount Sitzman was accused of stealing.

“I would hope that I would never have to sit on another one that was like this one. For $78 and some cents it just really wasn't right," Cooper said.

When asked about the jury’s decision, Gaouette told 7NEWS that while his office respect’s the jury’s decision, he believes the jurors did not follow the judge’s instructions.

In the written statement, Gaouette addressed the criticism raised by the jurors. “The verdict does not mean this case should not have been pursued. The United States Attorney’s Office has an obligation to the public to pursue the prosecution of anyone who has committed a federal crime.”

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney and retired judge Richard Spriggs told Kovaleski: “In addition to their principle function of attempting to prosecute the guilty and protect the public… prosecutors also have an obligation to the court… to basically keep the junk out of the system…. There are almost always other alternatives available.”

Kovaleski asked the jury foreman, “Did the U.S. Attorney lose some credibility by bringing this case?”

Cooper replied, “Well, in my eyes they did.”

Gaouette defended his office telling 7NEWS that he believes credibility is defined by honesty and explained that no one from his office was dishonest during the trial, but jurors questioned the judgment of the U.S. Attorney’s office, for allowing the case to reach the level it did.

“I understand how it made it [to federal court], but there has got to be other procedures to go around this,” said juror Wendi Batchelor.

Information for the Office of Public Affairs for Federal Courts and a variety of legal experts said the government's investigation and prosecution of Sitzman cost between $50-250,000.

“There should have been a better way to handle this than taking it through court and spending a lot of money on attorneys and the other work that had to go into to preparing a federal case,” said Cooper.

He continued, “I wouldn't say they made a mistake, because I don't know them, but I would never have done it this way. Having managed large company operations I would not have let my people spend a quarter of a million dollars to go after a $78 problem. I would have done it a different way.”

Legal experts told 7NEWS that cases against suspected thieves should not be dropped outright based on the dollar amount, but also said there were better, more economical, places to resolve this specific issue including at the post office's adminstrative level or with a magistrate and not in a federal court before a federal judge and jury.

While Sitzman won her criminal case, she still does not know if she will be able to get her job back or her pension.

She spent a year suspended without pay and a year’s salary on attorneys to fight for her.

Kovaleski asked, “You fought and you won. Why?”

Sitzman replied, “Because it was the truth.”

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