Judge Ronald Frazier lost patience with lawyers in the case.
Judge Ronald Frazier lost patience with lawyers in the case. Photo by Ken Stone

Judge Ronald F. Frazier projects a friendly, folksy manner in downtown Superior Court, especially in the presence of the jury for the Sandra Maas suit against KUSI-TV.

With self-deprecating humor and personal anecdotes, he keeps things light. On Tuesday, Day 4 of the pay-equity trial, he noted that only one alternate juror remains.

“No rock climbing till the end of the case,” Frazier joked as he released the panel for the day.

But earlier, with the jury not present, the former medical malpractice litigator performed surgery without anesthetic.

Noting the 1,200-case backlog in the county’s civil department, he called out lawyers signaling their cases might not be wrapped up by March 6-7 as promised.

“I have a two-week, three-week and six-week trial after this,” he said, followed by a possible eight-week trial in the summer.

Calling himself “frustrated” with the Maas team for “going over the same questions again and again” with KUSI’s father-and-son leaders, Frazier said: “You have wasted a tremendous amount of time. Tremendous. You’re not giving enough credit to the jury. They’re paying attention.”

On a day when KUSI general manager Mike McKinnon Jr. finished his testimony and news director Steve Cohen began his, Frazier counted eight more witnesses — including Maas’ husband — waiting in the plaintiff’s wings.

“That’s not an efficient use of time,” Frazier said, adding: “Wow, wow. There’s a thing called closing arguments.”

He said the Maas presentation should finish by the end of Feb. 28. He wanted the KUSI side to submit its list of witnesses the same day.

Over the course of the day — with the courtroom closed to the press and public twice (a total of 51 minutes) — both sides sought to bolster earlier testimony.

The Maas side sought to depict KUSI as making pay decisions for nightly co-anchors Allen Denton and Maas on the basis of subjective whim with managers failing to “write up” Maas for being late or taking overly long dinner breaks.

When KUSI lawyer Ken Fitzgerald cross examined McKinnon Jr., the station GM said Cohen viewed various tapes when looking to hire an anchor and said: “I got it” when he came across Denton’s submission.

In “15 seconds, you knew that was the guy,” McKinnon Jr. said.

But the Kearny Mesa station’s president also pointed to Denton’s career achievements, including being chosen by the South Carolina governor in 1991 as the lone “pool” reporter to witness an execution and covering the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and a Clinton presidential inaugural.

At a Charlotte station, Denton saw his salary rise from $215,000 in 1996 to $245,000 in 2000, he said. At an NBC station in the Bay Area, his pay rose from $425,000 to $690,000.

Junior, as he’s sometimes known, also added details to earlier testimony that Maas labeled herself a ritzy Chanel who was being paid like a Coach [handbags in both cases].

He said Maas described men at the station as “fruit of the loom.”

Junior said he offered her a “pretty good” three-year deal and was “hoping to turn around her bad habits.”

He also revealed that Kimberly Hunt, when she was at KUSI, was paid more than Denton would be. (She anchored the 6 p.m., 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. weeknight newscasts for five years starting in 2002.)

He called Hunt, now with KGTV/10News, “the most popular anchor in the market.”

Under questioning by Maas lawyer Josh Pang, Cohen said yes to Maas being “extraordinarily good” at what she did — but not as good as Denton in talent, experience and audience appeal.

But in his January 2020 deposition, Cohen said neither of the co-anchors was “stronger than the other.”

Pang and Cohen went back and forth over whether Nielsen ratings (by the quarter-hour or minute) could show Denton or Maas as more popular.

They also wrangled over email evidence that KUSI was looking to replace Maas after she took a one-year deal in 2018 instead of a three-year contract.

Cohen confirmed an email to Peter Goldberg, the agent for Anna Laurel, when Cohen was checking out her availability for KUSI as a “backup” anchor in case Maas left prematurely. (“I had my eye on her a number of years,” Cohen said.)

Cohen also confirmed that KUSI ended Maas’ employment involuntarily — and not simply by letting her contract expire without renewal.

The veteran news director — except for a stint doing PR for the Aruba tourism industry to repair damage from the 2005 disappearance of Natalee Ann Holloway — will continue testimony about 9 a.m. Wednesday.

The morning session was observed by Maas’ mother-in-law from Mission Viejo and sister-in-law, an Irvine kindergarten teacher. Also present was a female member of Maas’ book club.

On a bench outside the courtroom, a disheveled spectator told a sheriff’s officer: “I’m just praying and hoping [Maas] wins.”

Maas thanked her in-laws for “coming all this way.”