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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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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson