Suspicious letters potentially laced with fentanyl being investigated

Nov 9, 2023, 7:44 PM | Updated: 8:03 pm

The US Department of Justice in 2022. Federal law enforcement officials are investigating reports o...

The US Department of Justice in 2022. Federal law enforcement officials are investigating reports of suspicious letters sent to election offices, a Justice Department spokesperson said November 9. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Federal law enforcement officials are investigating reports of suspicious letters sent to public officials, a Justice Department spokesperson said Thursday.

Related: Utah Lt. Gov. warns clerks to be cautious of suspicious letters

“We are aware of the reports and the FBI and U.S. Postal Inspection Service are investigating this matter,” the department spokesperson said in response to an inquiry from CNN.

Public officials in California, Georgia, Nevada, Oregon, Texas and Washington state have reported receiving suspicious mail. Most of the letters appear to have targeted election offices.

Investigators are treating all the letters as connected for now, given the timing, a law enforcement official told CNN.

So far more than a dozen have been reported, the official said.

The FBI said it has “responded to multiple incidents involving suspicious letters sent to ballot counting centers in several states” but could not comment further on an ongoing matter. “The public can be assured that law enforcement will continue to keep the public’s safety as its top priority,” the agency added.

In a statement Thursday, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Fulton County, Georgia – which includes large swaths of Atlanta – had been among the election offices in multiple states targeted with suspicious letters.

Officials in Georgia said the letter received by Fulton County was suspected to contain fentanyl.

“We’re working with our state and federal partners to determine if any additional Georgia officials are being targeted,” Raffensperger said. “Domestic terrorists will not trample on our right to free and fair elections.”

CNN previously reported that election offices across multiple counties in Washington state had received envelopes on Wednesday that contained powdery substances.

At a news conference Thursday, Raffensperger called on elected officials and political candidates to condemn the activity and invoked the death of his son to convey the seriousness of the matter.

“Some people like to call fentanyl a drug, but it’s actually poison,” he said. “It’ll kill you … very quickly and very easily. It’s very dangerous.”

“We lost our son five and half years ago due to fentanyl overdose. We know how deadly this stuff is,” Raffensperger said.

Fentanyl was found in an envelope received by election officials Wednesday in King County, Washington – home to Seattle – the county’s elections director Julie Wise told CNN.

Staffers opening the envelope Wednesday detected white powder and immediately isolated the letter, called law enforcement and evacuated the building, she said.

Wise said her staff did not read the contents of the letter, but she described the situation as eerily similar to one over the summer when another letter – this one saying that there should not be elections – was also later found to contain trace amounts of fentanyl. She said the US Postal Inspection Service investigated the earlier incident.

Wednesday’s letter arrived as officials were counting ballots following Tuesday’s local elections, and it prompted the evacuation of some 150 workers for about three hours, she said.

“It’s devastating” for the county’s election workers to be targeted in this fashion, Wise said. “They are human beings. They have families. They are here to do a job. They believe in democracy.”

But she said her team resumed work as soon as they could on Wednesday, undeterred by the incident.

“If anything, it’s fired us up even more,” Wise added. “It made us want to continue to do the important work of processing ballots. … We are not going to be broken down.”

In neighboring Oregon, an election office in Lane County – which is about 120 miles south of Portland – also received a suspicious piece of mail at their office on Wednesday, a county official told CNN.

The reports come against a backdrop of election officials facing threats and harassment, first ignited by false claims of a stolen election in 2020.

Voting rights activists and some state election chiefs have warned that the overheated political climate around voting has contributed to a wave of resignations and retirements by election officials around the country.

The US Justice Department has brought criminal charges against at least 14 people after creating a task force in 2021 to address threats against election workers, according to a recent department summary.

At Thursday’s news conference in Georgia, Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts said the letters show that there are “some crazy people out there who will go to any extreme to disrupt” US elections.

“It’s my personal belief that this is just probably a forerunner into what we can be prepared for in 2024.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Evan Perez and Natalie Barr contributed to this report.

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Suspicious letters potentially laced with fentanyl being investigated