Sandra Maas told a court Tuesday she was feeling good about her anchor future at KUSI-TV in early 2019 even though she was nearing the end of a one-year contract.
“It was going so well, I didn’t send one feeler to any TV station in the market after the last deal,” in 2018, she said on the witness stand.
But on May 17, 2019 — when she was hoping to talk contract with general manager Mike McKinnon Jr. — she instead was called into an afternoon meeting with news director Steve Cohen and HR director Sally Luck, Maas recalled.
Hearing Cohen say that he was speaking on behalf of McKinnon, the 15-year KUSI mainstay thought she was going to be offered a $5,000 raise “and that’s about it.”
But after inquiring about her duties going forward, Cohen stopped her.
“Well, I can’t answer any of those questions,” Maas said Cohen told her. “Let’s just get right to it. Your deal is done in three weeks. It will not be renewed.”
A “stunned and shocked” Maas said she felt like she was having an out-of-body experience.
“You can leave right now … or you can stay for a few weeks and get your pay,” Cohen allegedly told her.
In Her Own Words
On Day 7 of her closely watched pay-equity trial in downtown Superior Court, Maas was sworn in, finally telling her own story, in her own words, 3 2/3 years after filing suit.
On the stand for nearly five hours, Maas countered KUSI court filings and testimony that depicted her as disgruntled and looking for a way out — having won few raises since her initial $100,000 salary in 2004.
Maas attorney Pamela Vallero asked her if she had ever said “I’ll take my chances” with a one-year contract (instead of a three-year deal falling short of her $215,000 request to come near the $250,000 of her former co-anchor, Allen Denton).
“I would never say [that],” Maas said. “I never said that.”
(During a break, Times of San Diego asked McKinnon his reaction to being called a liar. He replied: “I can’t talk about it right now — judge’s orders.”)
With spectators including Maas’ 29-year-old daughter Brianna from Newport Beach filling all 42 seats, the courtroom was riveted by Maas’ recollection of distant conversations.
After an awkward silence that Friday in May 2019, Maas said HR chief Luck jumped in and said: “You’ve done nothing wrong.”
Cohen added that her being nonrenewed was not about her performance, saying: “We’re just bringing in a new generation of journalists. Lots of them.”
Maas told the court she couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“Here’s this seventy-something news director telling me that I’m done for no reason,” she recalls thinking. “And they’re bringing in a new generation of people?”
But Luck promptly denied that “new generation” meant age discrimination, she said — “That’s not what we’re doing here.”
Cohen soon left the meeting in Luck’s office.
“I looked at (Luck) and I said: ‘What happened here?'”
Maas said she was told that the McKinnons thought she wanted “more pay for less work.”
Maas replied: “Sally, you were in my negotiations last year. … I was bringing more to the table, not less.”
And then she asked: Did Cohen throw me under the bus?
Luck nodded yes, Maas said. Then she recalled having to prepare for newscasts at 5, 6, 10 and 11.
Several days later, she told the court, Cohen denied the “more money for less work” assertion.
“I can’t interpret how the boys down the hall respond to certain things,” Cohen allegedly said, adding that perhaps KUSI’s father-and-son owners interpreted his remarks “in a different way.”
Cohen, she said, told her he was “distraught” about the situation.
Lawyer Back in Court
The day started with Judge Ronald Frazier greeting the return of Maas attorney Josh Gruenberg to the courtroom nearly a week after he came down with COVID.
Before the jury filed in, Frazier reminded Gruenberg he still had to wear a mask the rest of the week despite testing negative.
The judge dealt with some discovery issues and said: “We have a good jury. They’re totally mesmerized by the case.”
Human Resources policy expert Deb Reilly finished her second day on the stand, and both sides until 4:30 p.m. uttered at least two dozen objections and met far from the jury in hushed “sidebars” at least eight times.
(The court also was closed to the press and public for 15 minutes before lunch to discuss how much KUSI was paying sports director Paul Rudy.)
After being sworn in at 9:38 a.m., Maas recounted her career path (after telling how she was born at the U.S. Army base in Frankfurt, Germany, and grew up in Mission Viejo — her parents divorcing during her freshman year at Chico State).
Her first KUSI contracts were $100,000, $110,000 and $120,000, she said, and she’d get up at 3:30 a.m. for her 5 a.m. start with “Good Morning San Diego.”
Another $120K Contract
Having been told that GM McKinnon hated agents, Maas negotiated her 2007 contract by herself with Cohen — again for $120,000.
But in succeeding years, she became frustrated with Cohen — deeming him a “barrier” to wage progress instead of a “buffer” with the McKinnons.
Despite not being the subject of any complaints (and being oft praised by Cohen), Maas said she was still making $120,000 in summer 2010.
But she eventually rose in 2013 to $140,000. And after being lauded for her 2016 presidential election coverage, Maas said she decided to “walk down the hall” — bypassing Cohen’s office — and ask Mike McKinnon Jr. for a raise.
Having been told by Cohen that there was “no better news anchor at KUSI or the entire [San Diego] market,” Maas said she landed a 13-month contract for $160,000.
After learning that co-anchor Denton was making $250,000, Maas resolved to ask for a bigger raise in 2018. (He’d eventually confirm that figure to her on his last day in February 2019.)
But she considered a three-year offer of $180,000 rising to $195,000 because “unfair pay was better than no pay at all,” Maas told the court, adding: “I don’t like controversy [or] friction. I just want peace.”
Maas said she opted for a one-year deal — not to start looking for a job elsewhere but to seek a better contract down the line. (Her lawyers played clips of her best reports — one on Nevada wild mustangs and a “Healthy Living” segment on cancer hope.)
After lunch break, jurors heard how Maas’ stomach sank on her last day at KUSI — June 13, 2019, when she “felt like I was being thrown out like the trash.”
She walked into the newsroom after a nearby dinner with her husband, and found — silence.
“No joking, no TV on loud,” she said. “My news desk was covered with a mountain of cards and flowers” from station colleagues.
Halfway through the 10 p.m. newscast, after the weather, she gave her goodbye.
Lawyer Vallero asked Maas what she was feeling.
“I was remembering the start of my journey here and thinking … My 30 years in broadcasting,” she said.
‘The Lesser Chair’
But news director Cohen had left earlier in the day without saying a word to Maas, which made her feel “like all along — my whole 15 years at KUSI — there were two chairs. … This [male] chair was the king. And they didn’t care about the person sitting in my chair … the lesser chair.”
She still had 15-20 minutes left in her final San Diego newscast — after nearly 30 years in the market
“I was feeling … that I just had to get out of there without losing my mind,” Maas said. “I had to be an example and give [colleagues] hope.”
Co-anchor Logan Byrnes helped carry her things to the car.
“There were tears from others who just heard,” she said. “I just wanted to get out of there feeling like I meant something there.”
She said the automatic gate at the Kearny Mesa station took forever to open.
“For three weeks, I had my game face on,” she said. “And finally when I drove through the gate. … I just felt like I was free to feel.”
Cross examination by KUSI attorney Ken Fitzgerald noted inconsistencies between her videotaped deposition and recent testimony regarding pay for community service.
“Are you prone to exaggerating?” Fitzgerald asked Maas. (Judge Frazier cut off the answer.)
Earlier, Maas attorney Vallero invited Maas to recount her post-KUSI job hunt — with “positive” contacts with San Diego’s CBS8, Fox5 and I Heart Radio (“which wanted to hire me right away”). All going for naught.
Vallero started to ask about “efforts to find employment thwarted by these subpoenas.”
Maas said the McKinnon Broadcast Co. “sent out notices.”
Fitzgerald objected, stopping that line of inquiry. The jury was excused for a break.
Judge Frazier forbid further talk of possible subpoenas chilling potential employers.