The State Department said yesterday it is searching worldwide for another anthrax-tainted letter.
At least one letter like the one sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle is packed in with State Department mail that was halted last month, said the department’s top spokesman, Richard Boucher.
Meanwhile, the last of the Washington-area survivors of inhalation anthrax left the hospital yesterday after a 25-day stay.
Leroy Richmond, 57, of Stafford County, Va., is believed to have contracted the disease when the Daschle letter went through the District’s Brentwood Mail Processing Center.
Another Brentwood postal worker left the hospital Friday, the same day an employee at a State Department mail-handling facility in Sterling, Va., went home.
The State Department closed its mail system Oct. 24 when the Sterling employee came down with inhalation anthrax. It also notified posts worldwide to seal and shut down pouch mail.
Mr. Boucher said eight out of 55 samples taken from the Sterling facility tested positive for anthrax. Two of the samples came from two separate mail sorters and six were found on a third sorter.
The high concentration of spores on a single sorter indicates “that there is a letter like the one sent to Sen. Daschle that has moved through our mail system,” Mr. Boucher said. “We are now proceeding to go look at all the mail that we have held up, frozen, sealed off, in mailrooms in this building, annexes and around the world.”
Officials have to assume that there is a contaminated letter of some kind in the system, and that it will eventually be found in a mailroom or pouch bag, he said. “If there had been a letter that had gone beyond that into our system, we assume by now we would have seen it.”
As officials were looking for the real anthrax letter yesterday, the U.S. Capitol police were dealing with reports of a phony one found on the desk of one of their own officers.
The officer has been suspended and accused of leaving a note and a powdery substance at his post in the Cannon House office building.
The substance was not hazardous but the department was taking the situation very seriously, according to U.S. Capitol Police Lt. Dan Nichols.
Federal officials during recent weeks have tried to get across the message to anthrax hoaxers that their pranks will be penalized harshly.
In a radio address last week, President Bush said “sending false alarms is a serious criminal offense.”
Lt. Nichols said a criminal investigation into the incident is under way and findings will be sent to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the police department’s internal affairs division.
The suspended officer was not identified. If convicted of a hoax, he faces up to five years in prison and as much as $3 million in fines.
“He’s been accused of this, and he’s suspended without pay, but he hasn’t been charged with anything yet,” said Jim Forbes, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, Ohio Republican, who heads the committee that oversees U.S. Capitol Police.
Mr. Forbes said there is no reason this officer would be exempt from charges similar to those faced by other anthrax hoaxers.
“He’s not exempt from anything,” Mr. Forbes said.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.