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Mail Chauvinists

Signed, sealed, and shipped out: Amy Ashley claims she lost her job with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service because of her race and gender
Sherri Cohen

Driving across the western reaches of Broward County along I-75, you probably wouldn't notice the Florida headquarters office for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, whose agents are responsible for investigating everything from mail fraud and theft to child pornography and terrorism. Just off Miramar Parkway, the structure is off-white, with orange trim and rectangles of tinted glass. For the past ten years, inspection agents have called this monument to modern architectural mediocrity home.

The location was handy for one of those agents, Amy Ashley, who transferred from New York City to Florida in 1996. Ashley lives so close to the Miramar headquarters at 3400 Lakeside Dr. that she could easily walk to her job as an inspector. That is, if she still had her job. Last fall, she was terminated for failing to show up for a Saturday surveillance assignment a year earlier, despite a doctor's note advising her not to work. The incident was the culmination of a two-year struggle between Ashley and her superiors, during which she claims to have been held to a higher standard than many of the inspectors around her.

The 47-year-old Ashley lives alone in a cavernous home in a bucolic development called Bristol Isle, which hugs a large, half-moon pond. The house's interior is salmon-colored, with large, airy, high-ceilinged rooms. A thick wall separates the kitchen and living room, but it ends a few feet from the ceiling. Atop this high barrier is a phalanx of mahogany figurines of African women. The female gathering on high intensifies the sense of Ashley's isolation below.

Ashley, who has never married or had children, appears much younger than her age would suggest, partly because of her high cheekbones. She has a wide smile, and her laughter is both raucous and resigned to the absurdities of life. She's a meticulous, organized woman, evidenced by boxes of photocopied documents she's collected regarding troubles at work.

"I just came back from the cardiologist today," she says while seated at her glass-top kitchen table. Sealed face up under the tabletop are dozens of photographs. One Polaroid shot shows a much younger Ashley garbed in '70s-era Sly and the Family Stone threads. She may not look it, but she feels much older now. "I started having heart problems; I have extra heartbeats. I'm on medication for that. He increased it from once to twice a day. The heart doctor says it's from the stress. He said, 'With what you're going through, I can see why it's happening.'"

Originally from Tallahassee, Ashley had spent almost 25 years working in some capacity for the U.S. Postal Service. She became an inspector in 1988, assuming the same federal law-enforcement status as, say, an agent of the FBI or Secret Service. Her time in the Miramar office, however, became a daily struggle for several years after she was tagged a "mouthy black woman," she claims. She found herself shunned by many agents in the office.

"People are so afraid to stand up for their rights," she says. "When all this started at work, there were people who said to me, 'I don't want to be seen talking to you because I don't want management to see you with me.' There's a fear factor; people are afraid to lose their jobs."

Ashley has chosen to fight her termination. Her attorney filed a 14-count civil lawsuit on March 25 against the U.S. Postal Service and certain employees at the Miramar office. She alleges that those parties violated her civil rights based on her sex and race, retaliated against her for filing a worker's compensation claim, and defamed her.

Ashley is not the only black woman criticizing the Miramar management. Last year, a female inspector transferred to the Tampa office after becoming fed up with harassing behavior at the headquarters; she has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Miramar managers. A third black female inspector, who was fired in 1996, is considering legal action using Ashley's attorney.


The Miramar headquarters is a maze of thinly carpeted hallways and SUV-sized offices; the men and women working here could easily be taken for insurance underwriters or investment bankers. Absent are the uniforms, sidearms, and hubbub that characterize a local police department. This office is headquarters for inspectors in nine satellite offices in the Florida division, one of eighteen divisions in the country. Inspectors stationed in Miramar handle all cases from West Palm Beach to the Florida Keys.

On a Friday morning in early March, inspector Delfin Alvarez is dressed casually in a polo shirt, but the probing intensity of his brown eyes is distinctly cop-like. The 35-year-old Alvarez has thinning dark hair and a five-o'clock shadow at 10 a.m. He became an inspector at this office in September 1998 after working as a criminal investigator first for the Florida auditor general and then the Florida attorney general. He is now in charge of the external-crimes unit, which handles identity theft, credit-card fraud, assaults on postal employees, and robberies involving the mail system.

 

"I always wanted to be a federal agent," he explains about his career trajectory. "I always wanted to work for a well-known, well-respected, law-enforcement agency."

Well-known?

"Well," Alvarez clarifies, "in the law enforcement field, it is well-known."

As lengthy as its history is, the inspection service certainly doesn't have the name recognition of the FBI or the U.S. Marshals Service -- a cachet those agencies achieved in no small part through television series and movies.

"If we're not the oldest federal law-enforcement agency, we're one of the oldest," boasts Enrique Gutierrez, the assistant inspector in charge, whose office is a few doors down from Alvarez's. "The [U.S.] Marshals and us are always arguing."

The roots of the Postal Inspection Service can be traced to Colonial times. Postmaster General Benjamin Franklin created the position of surveyor to help regulate and audit postal operations. Those employees were renamed special agents in 1801. The Office of Instructions and Mail Depredations was established in 1830 as an investigative branch of the Post Office Department. Today's service can be traced directly back to 1880, when Congress established the position of chief postal inspector and renamed special agents inspectors.

It remains, however, a small agency of about 1900 inspectors -- compared with about 12,000 FBI agents. Florida has 112 inspectors who work out of the state's nine offices. Still, the spectrum of crimes over which the service has jurisdiction is broad. Inspectors enforce more than 200 federal laws, including the mailing of bombs, burglaries, child pornography, narcotics shipments, counterfeit stamps and money orders, destruction of mail, on-line fraud involving misuse of mail, extortion, identity fraud, and money laundering.

Bring up the name of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, however, and you're likely to get a puzzled look. Gutierrez jokes, "The public asks: 'Oh, do you measure how much glue's on the back of a stamp?'" Indeed, for many years, the agency was known as the "Silent Service," he explains. "Many people to this date don't know we exist. That may have been OK for 200 years, but quite frankly, it doesn't work anymore. Anthrax changed our perspective. We need the public's help. We have to make people know who we are and, especially in these troubled times, who they can turn to."

Anthrax affected the postal service nationwide, but South Florida was an epicenter of sorts because the first case was discovered here. In early October, Robert Stevens, a 63-year-old photo editor with American Media Inc. in Boca Raton, died of exposure to anthrax. When the first investigators on the scene suspected that the anthrax might have been delivered through the mail, the inspection service was called in. "Unfortunately, we don't have a clear piece of evidence that it did come through the mail, but it's assumed," Alvarez says. "We don't have a real smoking gun in the AMI building. If it did come through the mail, it was destroyed, unlike the letters delivered in New Jersey and D.C."

Soon after the AMI contamination, a 24-hour command center was set up in the Miramar headquarters' conference room. "We all became 'prohibitive mailing inspectors,'" Alvarez says. "Every inspector in this office was assigned to the anthrax case in some way or another." Some inspectors profiled letters, literally standing in mail-sorting centers and looking for letters similar to those sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw. Inspectors responded to about 1600 calls of possible anthrax contamination. None proved bona fide, but a couple of dozen cases were hoaxes and have led to criminal prosecution.

"There was a massive learning curve," Gutierrez explains. "We're very used to our comfort zone, things like bombs." Bomb-disposal protocol calls for moving it outside the building and disarming or detonating it. "With anthrax powder, one of the worst things you can do is walk out with it and spread it," he says.

"We look at the world differently since 9/11 and anthrax," Gutierrez concludes. "The lenses were changed in our glasses, so to speak." Amy Ashley has missed the entire anthrax investigation; she was fired just days before the first infection became public. Despite a lengthy career with the postal service, her experience went unused. Alvarez and Gutierrez declined to comment about Ashley's case for this article. Alvarez told New Times that all inquiries must be submitted in writing to Thomas J. Blum, the Atlanta-based deputy managing counsel for the postal service. Blum did not reply to questions faxed to him.

 

In general, however, Gutierrez dismisses as "totally, 100 percent untrue" any claim that management is unfriendly to black women. "All inspectors here are treated equally and justly, from the lowest person on the support-staff ranks all the way up to the inspector in charge," he says. "I don't know where they're coming from with that, quite frankly. Accusations are easy to make; they sometimes cover up other defects."


Ashley attended the University of Florida in Gainesville, where she graduated in 1976 with a major in public relations and a minor in criminal justice. Her sister had married and moved to Mount Vernon, a small town in upstate New York. In 1978, Ashley joined her sister and late that year began working as a "casual" clerk at the post office, a status that allowed her to work no more than 90 days in a row. She came back as a casual carrier, eventually getting a full-time job as a clerk in Yonkers, New York. "Yonkers had been an office that typically didn't hire blacks," she says. "There was one older black guy there. When I came in, I was one of about five blacks in a group of ten that came in." After five years there, she moved back to the Mount Vernon mail room as a supervisor.

In 1988, she spent 16 weeks in Potomac, Maryland, training for the Postal Inspection Service. Ashley recalls being a frank, outspoken trainee, a quality that apparently did not sit well with some. "One of the teachers pulled me aside and said, 'Amy, all the instructors get together and grade the students and rate them. If you can just make it through that, you can do it, because if they can get rid of you on your attitude, they'd get rid of you.'" She passed the training course and was appointed as an inspector in September 1988 at the massive postal complex adjacent to Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. She worked in various divisions, including internal and external crimes and prevention. Her seven-year stint there was without incident, she says.

Hoping to get closer to relatives in Tallahassee, Ashley applied for and received a transfer to the Miramar office's external-crimes division in February 1996. Almost immediately, she clashed with her supervisor, Daniel D. Jones, who at one time had worked at the Manhattan office. Ashley claims she was told by another inspector that Jones, who is white, believed Ashley was one of two black female inspectors who had failed to acknowledge him when he met them in the office. Within months of Ashley's arrival in Florida, Jones had placed a letter of warning in Ashley's personnel file. Jones claimed she had failed to leave a contact telephone number while on vacation, during which one of her cases was coming before a grand jury. When she appealed the action to the inspector in charge, he upheld it. She then appealed the letter to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC office subsequently lost the file, Ashley says, but she had by then decided to let the matter drop because she had been reassigned to a different division that investigated fraudulent worker's-compensation claims.

Her new supervisor, Johnnie Harrison, a black man, held her to a high standard, she remembers, and she wasn't reluctant to call him on it. "I used to ask him, 'Why are you so tough on me?' He'd say, 'I gotta be tough on you because you're black, and you know that as a black person, they're going to expect more of you.' He told me that. We could sit down and talk about things: 'I know where you're coming from.' We'd argue, and I'd walk out and slam the door, and the next day, it's forgotten."

Her troubles began in earnest when Harrison transferred to Tampa in early 1999 and one of her team members, Richard Koss, moved into the supervisory position. She had worked with Koss, who is white, a couple of times before his promotion, and they didn't have any problems, she recalls. "When we were out there working, he told me he dated black women and that he was dating a black woman." Ashley says she did not respond.

Ashley's relationship with Koss, however, soured soon after he became supervisor. She claims he accused her of divisiveness because she didn't spend enough time with the team socializing in his office. He might have believed she was undermining his authority, she says. Regardless of the reason, tension grew between the two, which would lead to a showdown over a high-profile investigation of two postal officials.


One of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service's most prominent cases in the late 19th Century was that of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, whom inspectors pursued after the pair heisted mail trains. A century later, Wall Streeters Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken were found guilty of mail fraud and securities violations as the result of work done by inspectors. The service helped bring Leona Helmsley to trial in 1989 for using the U.S. mail to defraud the State of New York out of taxes she owed. Perhaps the service's most famous case was that of Theodore Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber, who for years sent bombs through the mail, killing three people and injuring 23 more.

 

Enrique Gutierrez, however, considers bringing Jerry Lenn and Wanda Martinez to justice among the greatest triumphs of the inspectors at the Miramar office.

The public first heard of the married couple on February 24, 2000, when the Miami Herald reported that Lenn, age 49, and Martinez, age 41, had called in sick on February 6 to their high-level postal jobs and never returned. Lenn worked as a manager of support services and administered maintenance contracts in South Florida. Martinez was a computer-systems manager and responsible for certifying that contractor invoices were accurate. Left behind was the couple's $1 million home in Parkland, a lavish homestead with a Jacuzzi waterfall and marble staircases. Investigators told reporters at the time that they had no indication the couple had been involved in any wrongdoing.

In truth, however, agents of the Internal Revenue Service and the Postal Service Office of the Inspector General had been investigating kickbacks Lenn and Martinez had received. The pair would approve payments for phony companies, money that was then laundered by New York accountant Robert Rachlin. Martinez and Lenn would receive kickbacks from Rachlin. When the two caught wind of the probe, they fled to Caracas, Venezuela.

"I came in one morning, and I said, 'That's it. We're going to go get them,'" recalls Gutierrez. "I'm not a very patient man when it comes to things like this."

Jack Galvin, then an inspector at the Miramar office, remembers that morning of March 6, 2000, quite well. He was told to report to his bosses pronto, recalls Galvin, who now supervises postal inspectors from the Jacksonville office. "There had been a series of newspaper articles out that weekend about Jerry and Wanda fleeing, and well, they were not happy." (A Herald article quoted one of Lenn's neighbors as saying, "The postal inspector asked me if I knew of any of their relatives -- apparently they couldn't find any of their next of kin.") Galvin, a native of Brooklyn, had in fact already been sent to New York City to interview Lenn's brothers soon after the disappearances.

Galvin and three other inspectors worked full-time on the manhunt and soon concluded that Lenn and Martinez had flown to Venezuela. Although the federal agents had no jurisdiction in that country, at the time, the postal inspection service had solid contacts with certain law-enforcement agencies there. Galvin and his team flew to Caracas and, with the help of local police, began tracking the couple. The team had learned much about their quarry before leaving the states, such as the fact that Martinez was an exercise and vitamin fanatic. Galvin was certain that if the woman was still living in the city, she would eventually patronize a gym or health-food store. If she were accompanied by her husband, a Chinese-American, the pair would likely be memorable in a country with such a small Asian population. Indeed, the investigators quickly found a gym owner who said Lenn and Martinez came there frequently but were using different names. Galvin tracked them to their address, but they had cleared out a week before. The trail led them to a hotel room, where local police arrested them for using false identification. Rather than prosecute them, Caracas police deported them. On April 7, just five days after arriving in Caracas, Galvin and his team boarded a flight to Miami with Lenn and Martinez. The two were taken into custody upon landing.

The couple pleaded guilty to bilking the U.S. Postal Service out of $3.2 million. U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley on January 5, 2001, gave them the maximum-allowed sentence of 71 months in prison, ordered them to pay back the $3.2 million, and fined them an amount equal to the pensions and vacation time they had accrued during their lengthy careers. Accountant Rachlin was given 27 months in prison and fined $10,000.


While the Lenn-Martinez case brought accolades to Galvin and his team, Amy Ashley's attempt to assist in the case resulted in a reprimand for improperly releasing information.

In March 1999, almost a year before the couple would flee, Halverson West, an agent with the IRS in Miami, contacted Ashley about a case his agency was investigating. Rachlin had been indicted in New York in 1997 for laundering money for two drug dealers. In the course of scouring Rachlin's books, IRS investigators found that he had handled almost $700,000 for Lenn and Martinez. West had met Ashley a year earlier during an operation that involved multiple agencies. When West learned that postal employees were involved, he called Ashley to verify their employment and find out Lenn's and Martinez's salaries.

 

In the course of finding that information, Ashley learned that a fellow postal inspector, Thomas Ward, had previously conducted an investigation concerning a large quantity of computer equipment purchased by the Management Information Systems Office for the South Florida division of the U.S. Postal Service. Ashley had conducted many similar audits while in New York and says she was stunned when she looked in the file. "I had to shake my head, because all these flags went up that something was wrong," she says. "If you go in and do an audit and something comes up like that, you ask for someone who has more experience than you to go in and do an in-depth audit on that unit. That was never requested."

The audit had concluded that proper procurement procedures were not being followed because requisitions made by Martinez were being approved by Lenn, who was her superior. "In the postal service, if you have someone working for you that's kin, you cannot sign off on any paperwork," Ashley explains. "You have to go above to the next person. That was not done."

The file had been closed in January 1999; Ashley allowed West to look through the closed file. Ashley claims that the release of such information is routine by postal inspectors. Indeed, Ashley points out that Robert Bohde, Ward's supervisor, allowed West to peruse the file again during a later meeting among her, West, Ward, and Bohde.

Bohde, however, soon notified Mark Grey, the inspector in charge, that Ashley had shown West the file. Grey in turn reported her to the Internal Affairs Office in Washington, D.C., for releasing information in violation of regulations. Although Grey attended the meeting during which West saw the file, Bohde was not similarly reported. Ashley believes she was singled out for discipline because management didn't want the closed case resurrected.

Internal Affairs investigators took affidavits from all parties involved in the affair. Statements from some of them do seem to suggest a reluctance to reopen the closed case.

Bohde told investigators that he asked West for specific details about his investigation but that West declined, saying that privacy regulations at the IRS precluded such disclosure. "He was like a salesman trying to sell a product he couldn't show," Bohde stated. "I asked a number of pointed questions trying to ascertain what he had that would be of interest to us and our old case. In one response, Agent West stated he had seen our case file and gave his assurance that he had information that relates to what we were looking for." In his affidavit, Bohde stated he didn't recall handing the file to West.

Ward stated in his affidavit that he had told Ashley twice that he was not interested in assisting in West's investigation unless the IRS agent gave him more information.

West ultimately conducted the Lenn-Martinez investigation with an agent of the U.S. Postal Service's Office of the Inspector General, which is based in Washington, D.C., and oversees the inspection service. As that investigation continued through 1999, Ashley was issued a letter of warning, a reprimand that led to an "unacceptable" rating in her annual review late that fall. She filed separate complaints with the EEOC for the letter and the poor review, claiming that both Ward and Bohde had let West see the closed file but were not disciplined. She was punished, she claims, because she was a black woman. Ashley points out the bitter irony that her efforts to advance the Lenn investigation were rewarded with a reprimand while Gutierrez now crows about the role other inspectors played.

Tension remained between Ashley and her supervisor, Richard Koss, after the unacceptable review. Ashley claims that employees who file EEOC complaints become targets of harassment by management. The antagonism affected her health, elevating her blood pressure and robbing her of sleep because of anxiety. The showdown with Koss began August 18, 2000, when he informed Ashley that she was to work the next day, Saturday, on surveillance. She asked to be excused from the detail because she had planned to visit her sister in Tallahassee on the weekend, a request Koss denied. The exchange compounded her stress level, leaving her with tightness in her chest and labored breathing. She visited a doctor that day, and he prescribed her an anti-anxiety drug and provided a note that she was not to work until Monday, August 21. She did not, however, notify Koss that she would not be at work on Saturday.

 

Ashley was suspended with pay that Monday. She soon hired an attorney, Thomas Romeo of Fort Lauderdale, who advised her to file a claim under the Federal Worker's Compensation Act, which she did on October 20. Ashley was ordered to undergo mandatory psychiatric fitness-for-duty examinations in November and December 2000. She spent two days in Chicago for one of the examinations. On March 13, 2001, she was notified that she was not fit for duty, based largely upon her use of the prescription drug Xanax as a sleep aid. She was then scheduled for a physical examination on March 21. Just days after that exam, she was called into the Miramar headquarters for a meeting with Grey (the inspector in charge) and Koss, where she was informed that she would no longer receive pay while suspended. She began using the months of sick leave she'd accumulated over her career.

Ashley received notice on May 23, 2001, that her worker's comp claim was being processed, a full six months after it had been submitted to Koss. Two months later, on July 23, the inspection service determined that she was fit for service and placed her back on paid leave. Ashley was summoned to headquarters on August 31, and Koss told her she would be fired for failing to show up for the Saturday surveillance a year earlier. She was terminated on October 1.


Ashley's is not an isolated case of a black woman feeling harassed by the management of the Miramar headquarters. Sandra Fletcher transferred from that office to the Tampa branch in May 2001 and has an open EEOC complaint against certain management personnel. While the 44-year-old inspector declined to get into specifics of her own complaint, (records of open EEOC complaints are not available to the public without the complainant's permission) she confirms Ashley's contention that black women are regularly treated unfairly.

"I understand that as an investigator that if you have leads or tips or things that come before you, you're constantly put in a position where nothing you bring to the table is worthy of being investigated or followed up on," she says. "I can't speak for [Ashley] on the particulars of that. We never worked for the same individuals. However, the mindset was there that whatever you brought to the table was doubly or triply scrutinized.

"You have individuals who are in positions of authority who believe that they have absolute power and can do what they want to and not answer to anybody or anyone," she says. "If you disagreed or voiced your opinion or let them know that you were displeased with something, they were like: 'Who do you think you are?'"

In her own case, she believes that the management of the Miramar office interfered with her advancement in the inspection service by not properly acknowledging her work as an acting supervisor. "The reason that's important is that there's a listing that goes out all over the nation about who's acting as a supervisor," she explains. "It lets other managers see you in that position. By not affording me that opportunity, the other managers didn't know I had that experience." She viewed this as an intentional derailment of her career.

She discussed her situation with Grey, then the inspector in charge. She claims his response was a knee-jerk support of other managers, lacking any objectivity.

Of Ashley, she declares, "When I worked with Amy, I didn't have any concerns about her competency."

Gutierrez says Fletcher requested and was granted a transfer and that she was treated no differently from other inspectors.

Faye Dowdell, now 51 years old and living in St. Petersburg, was an inspector in Miramar until 1996, when she was terminated. A member of the U.S. Army Reserves, Dowdell had been in a vehicle accident while on reserve duty in New Mexico and injured her neck and back in 1994. Sitting for long periods of time aggravated the condition. Inspection managers, however, transferred her to a division where she was to spend most of her time sitting in a vehicle on surveillance.

"I was working every day," she recalls. "Then they sent me for a fitness-for-duty [physical exam], and the doctor said, 'You can go back to work.' I said that was great, and he seemed surprised I was happy about that." The doctor, to whom the postal service routinely referred employee illness or disability claims, went into his office for a while, then came back out and said he needed to do more tests, which took a few more hours. In the end, he concluded she was unfit for duty. She was shocked that the doctor had changed his mind so quickly. "I guess this doctor does whatever he's told to do," she asserts. She was terminated, she says, based on an inability to pass a physical performance test -- such as lifting so much weight or climbing a ladder -- similar to the one she took upon entering the service. The odd thing, she points out, is that no one ever asked her to perform such a test again. "They don't know whether I can [pass] or not," she says.

 

Dowdell says she has contended with racism since joining the inspection service in 1985. There's just no room for a black woman who speaks her mind, she says. "It's a very elitist group. They all know that if they get rid of somebody they don't like, they can bring in somebody they do. And as long as they have people there they don't like, they're keeping out some of their cronies."

Dowdell has discussed the possibility of filing a lawsuit using Thomas Romeo, Ashley's attorney, but for now is waiting to see how that suit plays out.

Gutierrez says he wasn't in a management position during this period. Of Dowdell's claims of racism, however, he responds, "That's totally unfounded. I mean, it's ridiculous."

Meanwhile, Ashley recently began receiving unemployment checks -- but only after winning an appeal against the inspection service, which had claimed she wasn't eligible. She promises equal doggedness with her lawsuit. "Others who have gone to court like me have made settlement agreements, but they had confidentiality stipulations," she says. "That's why you never hear about it. I wanted to go public because there's too much going on to stay quiet. I'm not wrong, so I'm going to fight it."


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