Bob Lonsberry

Bob Lonsberry

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side profile view of mixed-race female mailing letter at traditional blue postal mailbox

Photo: Catherine McQueen / Moment / Getty Images

        Many people spent the weekend trying to figure out how a postal permit number seemingly belonging to the University of Rochester ended up on a variety of predominantly Democratic political mailings.


               The university is a non-profit organization specifically forbidden by law from engaging in partisan political activities. Similarly, the unauthorized use of a postal permit number is a violation of federal law.


               Which begs the question: What happened here?


               Was this a simple mistake somewhere, or an act of misconduct with huge ramifications?


               Here’s the background. A postal permit is a way of paying the United States Postal Service for delivering presorted bulk mail. In a given mailing, all the pieces are identical, they weight the same, they are handled the same. And the postage is paid through a particular postal permit account, designated by an assigned number.


               The assigned number will be found inside a box in the upper right-hand corner of the front of a piece of mail.


               That’s where the current controversy arises.


               Several pieces of Democratic campaign literature have been delivered with “Permit No. 780” printed in the postage box. The Monroe County Democratic Committee, the Pittsford Democratic Party, the Henrietta Democratic Committee, as well as county legislature candidates Dave Long, Lystra McCoy and Allan Richards.


               But that number – “Permit No. 780” – also appears on various mailings of the University of Rochester, sometimes with the designator “Non-Profit” and sometimes without.


               Are those permits with the same number actually the same permit? And if so, does that permit actually belong to the University of Rochester?


               Sometimes, entities doing bulk mailings will use a “mailing house,” a commercial mailer with its own permit, and that company’s permit number will appear on the mailings of all its customers. Two separate checks, however, seem to indicate that the University of Rochester owns the 780 permit. Final verification can only come from the university or from the Postal Service, which is obligated by regulation to disclose the names of permit holders when asked in person – which will probably happen as soon as the post office opens today.


               Presuming the 780 postal permit does belong to the University of Rochester, how did it end up on campaign mailings? If the university allowed its use, that would jeopardize its non-profit status – an inconceivable action. If someone misappropriated the number – in effect, stole it – that would be criminal, and also pretty unlikely. While politicians can be slimy, committing a felony crime and then sending evidence of it to thousands of households across the region is a stretch even for them.


               So if the university didn’t do wrong and the politicians didn’t do wrong, what happened?


               The answer might be found at Eagle Graphics.


               I don’t know whether or not Eagle Graphics does printing for the University of Rochester, but it did the printing for all the Democrat mailings that included the 780 postal permit – as well as a mailing for incumbent Republican family court Judge Dandrea Ruhlmann, which also included the 780 permit designation. (Republican county executive candidate Mark Assini also had a mailing printed by Eagle Graphics. I have not yet learned what the postal permit number on it was.) If the number had been stolen to help Democrat candidates, it’s not likely it would have gone on the Republican mailing.


               And the fact that it did raises the possibility that something might have gone wrong at Eagle Graphics – or wherever these mailings were graphically designed. In a world of digital composition, where there’s a lot of copy and paste, it’s not inconceivable that the wrong postal indicia might have ended up on the political mailings.


               Unanswered would be how the University of Rochester indicia got into the system that produced the political mailings.


               Either way, that would be a mistake, but people make mistakes and people can fix mistakes, and a mistake is not a crime.


                If that is where the number problem arose, the question then becomes: Who paid for the mailings? Typically, political mail is only handled cash on delivery – if you want your stuff mailed, you have to pay up front. That might say something about the financial trustworthiness of the people who run our government.


               But if the candidates or the party paid for these mailings when they were sent out, and the mailings carried the permit number of the university, who did the postal service bill and where did the politicians’ money go? There’s probably nothing wrong going on there, but given the number confusion, it would be good to know.


               And that’s the bottom line – there’s probably nothing wrong going on here, in large part because if there were it would be staggeringly corrupt. And Rochester politicians, the occasional conviction notwithstanding, don’t seem to be staggeringly corrupt.


               The unfortunate impact of this is that it makes it look like the University of Rochester – the monolith of economic, social and political power in the region – is in bed with the Democratic Party. It probably is, but not to this extent, and not this blatantly.


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