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Mail Chauvinists

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.

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson

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