Prescription meds that never seem to arrive. Endlessly delayed Amazon packages. Mailboxes disappearing from street corners overnight. These have been the hallmarks of Louis DeJoy’s brief tenure atop the United States Postal Service.
Years earlier, in North Carolina, people flooded into soup kitchens when their food stamps never came. Doctors treating the state’s neediest patients weren’t getting paid. The private information of tens of thousands of children was mistakenly sent to the wrong addresses. Such was the legacy of DeJoy’s wife, Aldona Z. Wos, during her brief tenure atop the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.
Both DeJoy, a former logistics executive, and Wos, a retired physician currently awaiting confirmation to be ambassador to Canada, were able to parlay their fundraising acumen into major appointments. And both brought hardline conservative beliefs to their jobs, running bureaucracies as fiefdoms, looking to outside consultants over career staff for advice, and ramming through disruptive reforms in the name of fiscal efficiency. And both called the agencies they were charged with overseeing “broken.”
“Ultimately,” said Rob Schofield of NC Policy Watch, a local liberal think tank, “it’s more about ideology and not believing in services."
The stakes were high in North Carolina, where tens of thousands of the state’s poor and infirm relied on Wos to provide essential services. But they may be even higher now, with DeJoy at the center of the most consequential election in modern memory, one where the most fundamental act of democracy — the right to vote — may hinge on whether the post office can deliver the mail on time.
To better understand the way that DeJoy is delivering America’s mail, it’s instructive to look back seven years ago, when Wos ran her state’s second-largest agency.
When then–newly elected North Carolina governor Pat McCrory made Wos (pronounced “Vosh”) his secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services on Dec. 13, 2012, he joked he had to beg her to take the job. The agency, with more than 18,000 employees and a nearly $20 billion budget, was a political hot potato, widely criticized by conservatives for poor fiscal management, bloat, and outdated computer systems.
“We had a line of applicants who were considered for this opportunity, but one thing I needed was someone coming in from the outside,” said McCrory, a former mayor of Charlotte. “I really wanted someone from the outside who has knowledge of this complex subject.”
Wos, who declined through a friend to comment for this article citing her pending confirmation, hadn’t practiced medicine for years and had never run anything as large and complex as DHHS, which provides services to the state’s neediest, including food stamps, mental healthcare, and Medicaid.
But she was no outsider.
Wos had met McCrory more than a decade earlier, when both had worked on Elizabeth Dole’s Senate campaign. It was the first foray into political fundraising for Wos, an immigrant born in Poland, and she immediately stood out both for her relentless work ethic and knack for raising cash.
Dole won, and Wos moved on to then-president George W. Bush’s reelection campaign, soon earning “Bush Ranger” status for having bundled at least $200,000 for the candidate. In June 2004, Bush made her ambassador to Estonia, a post that seemed tailor-made for Wos, who relished the opportunity to promote American values in a former Soviet bloc nation.
“It’s not for ego, or to get higher up, or to make money,” said Jackie Wieland, a longtime friend of Wos. Wieland said Wos’s political views and mistrust of government were shaped by having been born behind the Iron Curtain and growing up a devout Catholic in her adopted new country. “She just really, truly believes in this and is terrified of communism and what it does to people.”
Wos’s success in fundraising was built in no small part on her husband’s company, New Breed Logistics, a small trucking firm that DeJoy had taken over from his father and turned into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. Prior to the blossoming of his wife’s political interests, Louis DeJoy seemed largely apolitical, even giving to some Democrats, including the presidential runs of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.
But beginning in 2000, at the same time that federal records show Wos made her first campaign contribution — $1,000 to George W. Bush — DeJoy embarked on a two-decade-long spree of Republican giving that, to date, has topped $4.3 million. Soon, DeJoy began encouraging his employees to donate as well.
According to Joe Joy, a former senior vice president at New Breed, DeJoy frequently dispatched a trusted lieutenant to walk around the company’s High Point, North Carolina, offices reminding executives who the company was supporting. Executives routinely received invitations to the fundraising events he threw at his home, recalled several New Breed employees.
“Everyone understood he was a big political donor,” said Joy, who recalled making a $2,000 donation to attend a McCrory fundraiser in late September 2012. The event was held at the house that DeJoy and Wos bought for $5.9 million shortly after Wos had been confirmed as ambassador to Estonia. Over the years, the 11,287-square-foot mansion had hosted George W. Bush, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and many other Republican elites, becoming an obligatory stop in the conservative fundraising circuit.
State data show that employees of the company donated nearly $79,350 to McCrory around the time of the event. For the entire election cycle, McCrory received nearly $260,000 from New Breed employees.
Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that several New Breed employees recalled being secretly reimbursed for such contributions through bonuses or other means. That practice — sometimes known as campaign money laundering — is illegal, and the House Oversight Committee subsequently launched a probe into the matter, while North Carolina’s attorney general said the matter “merits investigation.”
Joy, for his part, said he was not reimbursed.
At the beginning of August 2013, soup kitchens in Raleigh were surprised by an unexpected flood of hungry residents — way more than normal for so early in the month. It soon emerged that food stamps across the state hadn’t arrived, and without them, some 30,000 North Carolina families had nowhere else to turn.
The cause of the problem was a glitch in a computer system, NC Fast, that DHHS had rushed out under its new secretary, Aldona Wos.
The NC Fast program had been in the works for years, and by the time Wos arrived, it was overdue and over budget. Eager to prove her administration wouldn’t be subject to the same inefficiency and waste she felt plagued the agency, Wos insisted on rolling it out as soon as possible, even though subsequent audits showed she’d repeatedly been warned that the system wasn’t ready.
A separate new system that managed Medicaid reimbursements, NCTracks, was also launched in defiance of similar warnings. Software errors soon led to massive delays in payments to doctors, who worried they would have to stop providing care to patients in need, or even close their doors. A third computer problem led DHHS to mail Medicaid cards for nearly 50,000 children to the wrong addresses, a violation of federal privacy laws that Wos tried to blame on Obamacare, even as the food stamp delays dragged on for so long that the US Department of Agriculture threatened to withdraw its funding for the entire program.
“What she did was push too hard and too fast to get both of those things online pretty much simultaneously,” said a former employee who requested anonymity because they still work in healthcare in the state. “She took this approach of come hell or high water, we’re going to roll it out. And hell and high water did come.”
Staffers said Wos showed little regard for how citizens of the state relied on those essential services to survive. Two specifically remembered her questioning why taxpayer dollars should be used to provide things like job training or food aid, rather than that money coming from an individual’s family or community organizations like churches and charities.
"That was definitely her philosophy — that government shouldn’t be providing everything for everyone. It's a very traditional conservative Republican philosophy, that you're doing people a disservice by providing them free meals and unemployment benefits, that you're teaching them to be dependent," said one employee who worked under Wos.
Though she insisted on drawing a symbolic $1 annual salary, Wos arrived to work each morning in a chauffeured car. Staffers said she instructed them to call her “Madam Secretary,” and memos soon leaked revealing that she’d issued a new dress code mandating “daily grooming and bathing,” and sent a department-wide memo detailing the appropriate font sizes for employees to use in email signatures.
Five weeks into the job, she went before members of the North Carolina legislature and railed against her employees for turning in reports late, proudly saying she’d started putting warnings in their personnel files.
At the same time, Wos brought in a host of consultants on no-bid contracts, tasking them with reshaping the agency and digging up waste and abuse. One, a former Republican state auditor, was made the chief financial officer of the state’s mental health services; another, a New York corporate turnaround firm that restructured Lehman Brothers when it went bankrupt in 2008, was tasked with the Medicaid program.
The most controversial hire was Joe Hauck, a longtime executive of her husband’s company, New Breed Logistics, where he had served as head of marketing, communications, sales, supply chain, and business development.
DeJoy counted on Hauck to drum up political donations, according to multiple sources, and he led by example. Campaign finance records show he gave at least $51,000 to Republican candidates between 2002 and 2013, including $2,500 to McCrory on the same September 2012 day that New Breed senior vice president Joe Joy and 17 other company employees also donated to the same candidate.
Starting as “senior adviser” at DHHS just a few weeks after Wos took office, Hauck was charged with restructuring the executive team and identifying ways to cut costs.
But controversy soon erupted over the cost of Hauck himself. Though he claimed he took a pay cut to help Wos at the agency, Hauck’s no-bid contract paid $125 an hour, which in the 11 months he worked there came out to $310,000 — more than double what Gov. McCrory earned.
"One thing that really just burned me a new one is the fact that Louis DeJoy's chief operating officer or whatever he was worked for us for eight or nine months and we paid him an astronomical amount of money to do some basic logistics work for us," said Tommy Tucker, a Republican state senator at the time who is now retired from politics. “It didn’t smell good.”
Public outrage over Hauck’s hiring led him to resign and return to New Breed. Though defenders said Wos’s team of “successful and talented private-sector employees” had saved the department more than $5.8 million, state records revealed little to show for Hauck’s time on the job, other than a pair of memos endorsing a plan to save money by reducing its dependence on high-priced contractors.
On July 27, 2015, a federal grand jury issued subpoenas to DHHS seeking information on the no-bid contracts Wos had given to Hauck and the others, as part of a criminal investigation.
Less than two weeks later, Wos resigned, saying it was “simply time to go home.”
The investigation was eventually closed with no finding of criminal wrongdoing. A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment on the case. Hauck did not respond to several requests for comment.
To mark his first day on the job, June 15, DeJoy sent a video message to all 500,000 employees of the Postal Service.
“We have an expensive and inflexible business model that has largely been imposed on us and that we cannot easily change,” said DeJoy. “But I did not accept this position in spite of these challenges. I accepted this position because of them, and because I want to work with you in addressing them.”
DeJoy had sold New Breed to a larger firm, XPO Logistics, for $615 million, and officially retired in January 2016, saying at the time that he looked forward to playing more golf and tennis. He had been raising money for Jeb Bush, but after that campaign faltered, DeJoy threw his considerable support behind Trump, and in 2019 was named finance chair for the Republican National Convention, originally planned to be held in Charlotte.
When the postmaster general job became vacant, DeJoy wasn’t even on the short list of candidates prepared by an outside executive search firm. But late in the selection process, DeJoy’s name was put forward by Robert Duncan, a new appointee to the Postal Service board of governors. Duncan, also a major Republican fundraiser, had previously served as chair of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. His vice chair on that body: Aldona Wos, whom Trump would nominate to be ambassador to Canada in February of this year.
Unlike the previous four postmasters general, DeJoy came to the job as an outsider. Although New Breed had numerous contracts with the Postal Service over the years, he’d never actually been an employee, bucking a tradition that many inside the agency took very seriously.
Although he had ordered a hiring freeze at the agency, DeJoy made an exception for himself, bringing in trusted former employees for top positions just days after taking office.
One, Heather Clarke, had been with DeJoy in a variety of roles since at least 2002 and had donated more than $61,000 to Republican candidates, records show. She would be his chief of staff. Another, Kelly Abney, was made vice president for transportation strategy, and a third, Patrick Fiorentino, took the title “senior executive adviser.” After CNN first reported news of their hiring this month, Abney altered his LinkedIn page, which now says he’s “retired.”
The Postal Service spokesperson said that “the freeze allows for certain critical vacancies to be filled if certain criteria are met.”
While at New Breed, DeJoy had found success with precision delivery for private companies, such as a contract with Disney to ship preordered DVDs of the movie Frozen to millions of households by a precise date. But now much more was at stake.
On July 10, DeJoy issued a memo that imposed strict new rules banning late departures and extra trips across the entire Postal Service, even if that meant leaving mail behind in sorting centers and post offices. “The shifts are simple,” the memo read, “but they will be challenging, as we seek to change our culture and move away from past practices previously used.”
Weeks later, DeJoy announced a substantial structural reorganization of the Postal Service, reducing the number of departments, eliminating several high-level positions, and centralizing power around his office. Postal employees dubbed it the “Friday night massacre,” and news of the restructuring was revealed just as the public began to feel the impact of DeJoy’s institutional pivot.
Amid outcry over the USPS’s taking some 700 sorting machines offline — a plan initiated prior to DeJoy’s appointment, but one critics say he could have stopped — customers around the country complained their mail wasn’t arriving as it should. Many wondered whether DeJoy’s actions were political in nature.
“It’s concerning for us to have someone that tied to the [Trump] administration become postmaster general, and then their first acts are to put in place policies that undermine the service to the people of the country,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, one of several unions representing the agency’s employees.
Summoned before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in late August, DeJoy pushed back hard, denying he had anything to do with reported cuts to overtime. That claim appeared to contradict a leaked memo circulated within the Postal Service soon after DeJoy arrived stating that “overtime will be eliminated.”
As for allegations that he was carrying out a calculated agenda from the White House, DeJoy said he had “never spoken to the president about the Postal Service, other than to congratulate me when I accepted the position.”
When Wos announced her resignation from DHHS in August 2015, then-governor McCrory couldn’t stop gushing about her.
She had been under fire almost from the day she took office, a target of both Democrats and Republicans indignant over her personnel decisions, the repeated fiascos under her watch, and the thousands of North Carolinians left in the lurch by her agency. But McCrory only seemed to care about her cost-cutting, noting proudly that the state’s Medicaid program ended the fiscal year with a rare $131 million surplus.
“She took all the hits, she took all the bullets, and didn’t transfer the blame to anybody,” McCrory said. “What she did was solve the problem and I’m proud of her.”
As he spoke, McCrory burst into tears. Wos handed McCrory a tissue.
With elections where as many as 80 million people are expected to vote by mail just weeks away, it remains to be seen how effective DeJoy will be at carrying out his plans to fix what he called the Postal Service’s “broken business model.”
In a press conference earlier this month, Trump said he supported an investigation into allegations that DeJoy violated campaign finance law, and said that if they proved true, the postmaster general should lose his job.
Curiously, DeJoy had imagined what it would be like working for Trump as far back as 2004, back when The Apprentice was in its first season. DeJoy was pretty sure, he told a reporter, that the management styles of the two business titans would vary too greatly.
“I’d be fired,” DeJoy said at the time. ●