Retired KUSI-TV newsman Allen Denton advised his former co-anchor Sandra Maas not to sue the station, calling it a bad move if “you’re planning on staying in the business.”
But during combative cross examination Thursday, Denton confirmed a text message he sent after reading a story she shared about her $10 million pay-equity suit.
“Looks like you nailed it,” he wrote Maas in late June 2019. “They screwed you. … You deserve every single dollar.”
The jury wasn’t shown the text, but Judge Ronald Frazier let it be quoted.
Maas attorney Josh Gruenberg asked Denton if he were shocked by the pay disparity revealed in the Superior Court suit — as much as $90,000 in 2015.
“Yeah, I might have been shocked that she wasn’t making a lot more than me,” he said, and he wouldn’t have been fazed if “she made quite a bit more.”
On Day 9 of the Hall of Justice trial downtown, Maas’ attorneys rested their case — but not their tough grilling of Denton, morning show host Paul Rudy and anchors Jason Austell and Logan Byrnes.
The morning began with forensic accountant Heather Xitco telling the court about the pay gap between Denton and Maas when they worked the same newscasts for more than nine years. It totaled $1.3 million (including 10% interest).
Xitco also calculated how much Maas lost in expected earnings between the time her contract wasn’t renewed in June 2019 and this week — $1 million — and her projected future earnings through July 2029.
She figured Maas, who wanted to retire at 70, would lose an additional $1.6 million.
KUSI lawyers weren’t happy about Xitco not also comparing Maas, 60, to three other male anchors at the station, who they say averaged less than Maas.
That dispute arose during a brief hearing in which the jury was excused to the fourth-floor hallway outside Frazier’s Department 65.
Gruenberg said factoring in the would-be other male “comparators” — Austell, Byrnes and former anchor Carlos Amezcua — would confuse the jury.
Frazier replied: “I don’t think it’s confusing at all…. It doesn’t prejudice your witness at all.” (In any case, Xitco hadn’t been given salary figures of the non-Denton anchors.)
When the jury returned, KUSI lawyer Caitlin Macker* asked Xitco about whether the three others should have been part of her comparison calculations like Denton.
“That would be a legal determination outside my area of expertise,” Xitco said.
After Xitco, the defense played selected clips of Denton’s September 2020 virtual deposition.
Occasionally halted so Gruenberg could read extra text from the deposition transcript, Denton mainly backed up Maas’ contentions throughout the trial — that nobody complained about her lacking professionalism, preparedness or promptness on set.
Maas, sitting closest to the seven-man, five-woman jury, frequently nodded her head in assent.
When asked about Maas griping while taping promos, Denton said it was just standard carping — common in the high-stress industry.
Later in the taped deposition — which Denton watched from his home in Panama City, Florida — he was asked by KUSI lawyer Ken Fitzgerald if Maas worked as hard as he did.
“When she was there, absolutely,” he replied.
But when Fitzgerald probed about Maas’ work outside KUSI’s Kearny Mesa offices, Denton said he didn’t know.
“I’m not Sandra’s keeper,” he said.
But Gruenberg said Denton contradicted his deposition when he said Maas came in late “quite a bit.”
He was asked: Did Sandra Maas deserve to be paid as much as you?
Denton said that decision was up to management, basing pay “on what the anchor brings to the table.”
But then he said: “I challenge anyone to find two co-anchors who sit side-by-side in the same market …. anywhere in this country, who make the same salary.”
Fitzgerald asked the live Denton — testifying with memorabilia on a wall behind him — if he were there voluntarily.
“Yes,” he said, adding that he “absolutely” would testify for either side.
Denton was asked about recent Maas testimony that he “disappeared mysteriously” in recent weeks and “something happened —someone got to him.”
“Is that true?” Fitzgerald asked in front of a half-filled spectator gallery that included former CBS8 and KUSI anchor Andrea Naversen.
“No,” Denton said. “My phone number has been the same for 23 years” and he had communications with a Maas attorney as recently as Feb. 6.
After lunch, former sports director Rudy was asked about Maas’ work ethic. He told KUSI lawyer Fitzgerald that Denton was at the station more than Maas.
Calling it a joke, Rudy recalled saying that Maas had “the most lucrative part-time job in the history of television.”
He also called her a “Negative Nelly.” And he said he once challenged Maas to name all of KUSI’s production people and would buy them all McDonald’s sandwiches if she could.
She couldn’t, and Rudy said the production crew had lunch on Maas.
On cross examination, Maas lawyer Gruenberg accused Rudy of saying what KUSI wanted him to say, since “you still rely on KUSI for your livelihood.”
That style of questioning — sparking KUSI objections — led Frazier to call a quick meeting in his chambers.
Gruenberg then began a different line of inquiry, asking Rudy if he ever complained about Maas to news director Steve Cohen or the owners Mike McKinnon Jr. and Sr.
“It wasn’t my place to,” Rudy said.
“You described her as a good egg,” Gruenberg said.
Rudy: “I meant that we had a friendly work relationship.” He later confirmed he also called her “pretty classy.”
Soon came queries about when Rudy, 62, would retire (“I don’t know what the future holds”) and whether he noticed a pattern of older white men paired with younger female anchors.
“Never noticed,” Rudy replied.
Text messages from Rudy to Maas were shown on a screen, with one noting weather man John Coleman’s no-fanfare retirement.
Rudy wrote Maas: “Your rep is high road,” referring to reputation. “Don’t deviate from the path that served you.”
He added: “We all get into this crazy game knowing the deck is stacked against us.”
On the stand, Rudy expanded on that theme, saying that a lot like professional athletes, “your last days are picked for you” in news broadcasting.
And Rudy confirmed to Gruenberg that he “sometimes” used profanity on co-workers “if they had a bad show, they would hear about it” — rather than roll his eyes and whisper under his breath the way he said Maas would.
(Rudy also was asked about his citing Denton bloopers — “kicking a script” or tripping over a word — and said his deposition remark that Denton had “lost a little on his fastball” applied to his last months, and not years. Rudy said his depo quip that “we are a collection of broken toys” referred to everyone in his business, not KUSI.)
Former helicopter reporter Jason Austell and lawyer Logan Byrnes wrapped up Thursday’s witness list — both describing their career paths to KUSI anchor chairs.
It gave KUSI lawyers a chance to depict their roles as similar to Maas’ — but with salaries that averaged lower than hers.
At one point, Judge Fitzgerald gave Byrnes one of his friendly recurring reminders not to talk over the lawyers (since it’s hard for the court reporter to transcribe cross chat).
“Hope that doesn’t bring back PTSD,” Frazier said to one-time Los Angeles attorney Byrnes on the witness stand.
Said Byrnes: “I’m having a hot flash.”
*An earlier version of this report gave the wrong attorney’s name.