Update: A judge delayed his decision on competing motions until March 11, saying evidence and other issues need to be resolved.
Laurel and her lawyers say KUSI illegally hacked her personal email account and printed out private information, including chats with her husband.
This week, a judge is expected to pick sides.
In a curious detour from Sandra Maas’ equal-pay lawsuit against McKinnon Broadcasting Co. and its independent station, San Diego Superior Court Judge Ronald Frazier will hear dueling motions Friday in the 3-year-old case.
KUSI wants Frazier to disqualify, or remove, Maas’ attorneys from her case, alleging professional misconduct. The same attorneys, calling KUSI’s motion a “smokescreen,” want the court to order KUSI to return Laurel’s emails and never let them go public.
Separately, Laurel is pursuing criminal charges against KUSI Chief Financial Officer Stephen Sadler, who in a deposition admitted reading 50-100 of Laurel’s private emails over several days on a news desk laptop. In court papers, Sadler says Laurel’s Gmail account was “left open” on a shared laptop, and he was reviewing them “to protect the company.”
- Read: Sandra Maas’ lawyers demand that KUSI hand over Anna Laurel email
- Read: KUSI requests that Gruenberg Law be removed as Sandra Maas’ lawyers
The San Diego Police Department is investigating the matter, Laurel says, and the City Attorney’s Office is “definitely interested in this case.” (But no referral for prosecution has been made yet, the office said Wednesday.)
Laurel, who worked at KUSI for almost two years before ending her $150,000-a-year contract last August, hired Gruenberg Law — Maas’ attorneys — to represent her since she was to be deposed as a witness in the case.
- Related: Former KUSI Anchor ‘Making News’ Herself with $10 Million Lawsuit
- Related: Veteran Anchor Sandra Maas Wins Legal Skirmish in KUSI Pay-Equity Case
“My truth and the truth is Sandra was a wonderful co-worker,” Laurel told Times of San Diego. “This business is so cut-throat, and she was wonderful to me. And so I guess [KUSI] really [didn’t] want to hear that. … [Sadler] figured that Sandra and I were in cahoots together.”
Sadler, whom Laurel calls “this nasty creep,” read through her private emails long after she worked at KUSI’s Kearny Mesa headquarters, she says, and a KUSI attorney shared copies of the emails with the court.
“They’re in a bubble of their own reality,” Laurel said in a phone interview Tuesday. “It’s just been infuriating and upsetting.”
Her email is mostly under seal, and Frazier was to view them Friday behind closed doors.
“They’re trying to intimidate me,” Laurel said. “My grandmother’s banana bread recipe that they saw in an email is normally under lock and key.” Also viewed, she said, was her banking and medical information.
Laurel wouldn’t be the center of attention had she sent email to the correct recipient.
In that email, Laurel accidentally informed Luck and KUSI that she would be retaining Gruenberg Law. (Laurel has not filed suit.)
“At that point, given Ms. Laurel had hired the same legal counsel as Ms. Maas, KUSI became aware Laurel would likely not be providing testimony generally favorable to the company,” their lawyers said.
Sadler and KUSI didn’t respond to requests for comment. The San Diego Police Department confirmed Laurel filed a police report but gave no other details.
But in his deposition, Sadler said he anonymously shared printed emails from Laurel’s account — putting them in two separate envelopes and addressing them to Luck by “spelling her first name with cut-out letters from a magazine” to make it look like a ransom note,
“I was kind of being silly,” Sadler said, agreeing under oath that “yes, I was” having fun with it.
Maas attorney Joshua Pang told Times of San Diego: “We’re actually fighting for KUSI to give us all her emails in their possession. Our position is those belong to Ms. Laurel alone — and have nothing to do with the case. We’re arguing they’re hanging this over her head as an implicit threat [that] they’ll use its contents against her … if she provides truthful testimony in the Maas case, and/or files her own lawsuit.”
In a court brief filed Thursday, KUSI attorney Marisa Janine-Page wrote that sufficient evidence exists to support the request to disqualify Maas’ counsel for “engaging in improper and unethical methods to obtain confidential information and using it against MBC in this lawsuit to gain an unfair advantage.”
Janine-Page continued: “Notably, Plaintiff does not deny that she and her counsel used Anna Laurel, a then current MBC employee, as a secret agent to gather information from her employer and share it with Plaintiff and her attorney, Gruenberg Law, to use it against MBC, a represented party in this litigation.
“Nor does Plaintiff deny that Gruenberg Law obtained and used MBC’s confidential information as a result. Consequently, Plaintiff in essence concedes that under the law, Gruenberg Law must be disqualified because these improper, ex parte communications with MBC employees resulted in them obtaining confidential information.”
KUSI says it had the right to view the emails because she agreed to company policy that allowed it. (She disputes that — and on Thursday added that KUSI had access to her account until she found out in early December 2021 and she changed her password.)
Among texts and emails discovered were communications that KUSI considers attempts “to sway public opinion against McKinnon Broadcasting by inducing at least three of its employees to breach their duties of loyalty and confidentiality to MBC.”
On July 6, 2019, KUSI alleges, Maas “coaxed MBC employee Ashlie Rodriguez to breach her legal and contractual duties to MBC.”
KUSI said Maas texted Rodriguez: ‘Have someone … not you … leak the story to Diane Bell at the Union Tribune’ [and] ‘also leak it to [Karla Petersen at the U-T],’ referring to MBC’s confidential information about its broadcast coverage choices to cover local news instead of a national news story about the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team lawsuit.”
(Rodriguez apparently knew that KUSI allegedly refused to air a report on the equal pay suit — settled this week for $24 million. In a Dec. 23 deposition, former KUSI sports reporter Maddison Sinclair testified that she set up an interview on the women’s soccer lawsuit, “went downtown and came back and was told that they’re not going to run that story.”)
KUSI says Maas also “manipulated” Rodriguez by telling her: “Help me expose it. I’m working very hard on this case but need help. This is a way for you to make a difference. Be careful not to jeopardize your job.”
Laurel also stands accused of leaking confidential MBC information in April 2020 to FTVLive, which KUSI calls “a website that provides disparaging blogging about TV news.”
On Tuesday, Laurel denied being a leaker, saying “a lot of people don’t like KUSI. In fact, I would cringe because I would wake up in the morning and have texts from my friends all over the country in the business — ‘Is this your station again?’ It was terribly embarrassing.”
On Thursday, FTV Live founder Scott Jones commented on the case and responded to KUSI’s depiction of his site: “I’m not saying your station is bad and doesn’t treat many of the employees fairly, nor covers the news fairly. But hey, if the shoe fits, lace that bitch up and wear it all over Southern California.”
In her own legal filing, Laurel said: “Although I admit to logging in to my personal GMail account on KUSI laptop computers, I dispute I left my email account open. Each employee (including myself) was issued a KUSI company email account — but for software-related reasons, nobody was able to access their company emails through the company computers on set.”
Laurel offered the court correspondence with HR chief Luck, dated April 9, 2020, in which Laurel wrote: “I haven’t been sitting at a desk in the newsroom, so I didn’t have access to my work email.” Laurel added: “I knew to (and did) ‘log off’ my personal email every time I left a KUSI computer.”
Lawyer Pang said in a Feb. 1 legal filing that KUSI’s Janine-Page realized she was entering an “ethical quagmire” by submitting Laurel’s private email to the court.
Janine-Page defended it by arguing Laurel gave consent to KUSI viewing her email by using KUSI’s “information systems” during her employment.
Laurel, who worked at KUSI from September 2018 to August 2020, scoffs at that assertion.
“They were hacking, reading through my emails long after I was … working there,” she told Times of San Diego. “I was sending emails in the privacy of my own home, and he’s reading them.”
In August 2018, Adweek quoted KUSI news director Steve Cohen after hiring Laurel following stints at KMPH in Fresno; WTVD in Raleigh, N.C.; and KPNX in Phoenix.
“A distinguished journalist with a long record of success across the country, San Diegans will enjoy getting to experience the wonderful blend of style, knowledge and integrity she’ll bring to the market,” he said.
On Tuesday, Laurel said she’s been recently doing freelance work for national ABC News and its website but would soon return locally in an on-air role.
“What I would really like is that someone get charged and have to answer to that in a court of law,” Laurel said. “I really never wanted to be entangled in anything like this. I’ll be so glad when [Maas’] case is over — because I just want to go on with my life.”
Updated at 12:20 p.m. Feb. 24, 2022