Romley's Richelieu

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley's office is accused of retaliating against a former colleague who says top aide Barnett Lotstein sexually harassed her

Though he rarely sets foot in a courtroom anymore, Barnett Lotstein is one of Arizona's most high-profile prosecutors. The loquacious attorney appears often on television and radio, serving as Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley's mouthpiece.

As front man with the press and public, special assistant Lotstein holds forth on the day's hot topics -- slumlords, juvenile justice, gangbangers, graffiti and the like. He regularly schmoozes legislators, journalists, talk-show hosts and the public, and for so doing is paid $109,000 a year. The 58-year-old spinmeister clearly is a powerful force on the eighth floor of the county building, where Romley and his executive team work.

So potent that when a female member of Romley's executive staff felt that Lotstein was sexually harassing her, she hesitated to file a formal complaint. The woman, Elizabeth Sukenic, has said she feared that Lotstein's clout would cause any allegations she made against him to boomerang on her.

David Hollenbach
Lotstein is Rick Romley's spinmeister with local media.
Lotstein is Rick Romley's spinmeister with local media.

That, in fact, is exactly what Sukenic now says happened. Last year, in a claim filed against the county as a precursor to a possible civil lawsuit, Sukenic's attorney claims Lotstein sexually harassed Sukenic on three different occasions. When Sukenic finally told a supervisor about the incidents, the claim says, the County Attorney's Office cleared Lotstein of wrongdoing, then retaliated against Sukenic.

She quit her job last March 9. Lotstein denies any wrongdoing in his behavior toward Sukenic.

Sukenic had joined the county attorney's staff in October 1998, at Romley's personal urging, coming on board as director of Community Relations. In her late 30s, she is married to Howard Sukenic, a deputy county attorney in the Special Crimes unit. She loved her job, according to friends and others, which is designed to put the best face on the office and its elected leader.

But according to a claim letter Phoenix attorney Amy Langerman sent to the county on August 18 last year, Sukenic soon began having unpleasant run-ins with Lotstein.

The letter, in part, details three alleged incidents of sexual harassment:

"[In early 1999], Lotstein and Elizabeth had been in an elevator together alone, and he had said, 'You know what we could do in this elevator.' Liz responded, 'It won't happen.'

"[In mid 1999], Lotstein and Elizabeth had been talking, and he looked at her and said, 'I could just kiss you.'

"[In early 2000], Lotstein had leered up and down Elizabeth's body (she was wearing strappy shoes), followed her into her office, shut the door, and went gaga over her strappy shoes. When he saw a bruise on her upper thigh, he stared at it and commented about his wife bruising easily."

The claim says the incidents "made Elizabeth extremely uncomfortable. However, because of Lotstein's political position, Elizabeth did not report the incidents. She had told her husband about the first incident right after it happened. He was then in private practice, but did relay the information to [two supervisors]. When Elizabeth mentioned the incidents to [her supervisor] Jan Jennings, it was in a personal conversation with someone she felt was a friend."

Sukenic's claim says she hadn't even wanted to officially complain against Lotstein's alleged behavior: "[Elizabeth] feared that Lotstein was too important. She specifically told Jan Jennings that she feared retaliation and that many people would be hurt . . ."

But Jennings told Sukenic that she was obliged as a supervisor to report the allegations. Chief deputy Paul Ahler -- Rick Romley's top aide -- immediately ordered an internal investigation. Shortly after Lotstein learned what was going on, he sent a memo to Romley.

"I am baffled as to why Mrs. Sukenic would draw any improper conclusions from our professional association," Lotstein wrote in his February 3, 2000, memo.

Ahler informed Sukenic of the investigation's results on February 22, 2000.

"There is insufficient corroborating evidence to support the allegations," he wrote, "[as] there were no witnesses to the alleged incidents. They were not properly reported. Finally, statements of co-workers who have had an opportunity to observe you and Mr. Lotstein work and interact together are inconsistent with a hostile work atmosphere or environment."

He added, "No retaliation for your coming forward on this matter will be tolerated . . ."

But Sukenic claims the office did retaliate. She says that, in the aftermath of her allegations, the County Attorney's Office dramatically reduced her work duties and, for the first time, negatively questioned her job performance.

"As a result of the conduct of Lotstein and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office," Sukenic's letter to the county says, "Elizabeth has suffered severe emotional distress and lost a job that she loved . . ." The letter accuses the County Attorney's Office of violating Arizona's whistle-blower law.

The claim says Liz Sukenic plans to sue Lotstein and the county for $1 million. (She and Howard Sukenic declined to be interviewed for this story. New Times spoke to 17 people, including friends of the couple, and accessed public records in preparing this story.)

Katherine Baker, a private attorney representing the county, says Sukenic's claims are bogus. "Sukenic was not disciplined, was not terminated, did not receive a bad evaluation, did not receive a bad reference, was not transferred or demoted, and was not refused a promotion," Baker wrote in response to the allegations. "Sukenic's allegations collectively fail to rise to the level of 'severe or pervasive' sexual harassment. . . . She does not allege Lotstein inappropriately touched her, solicited her for sex, spoke in a sexually suggestive manner, or engaged in crude sexual behavior."

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