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.
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."
In an interview with New Times last week, Lotstein struggled to make sense of what he says is a baffling situation. "I guess sometimes when you're in a position of prominence in an office like this, you can get caught in the crosshairs," he said. "This is disturbing to me, obviously, and it's embarrassing. I had to tell my wife of 35 years, my three daughters, my mother. When I told my wife what Elizabeth was accusing me of, she -- and just about everyone else -- said, 'What? You're kidding me.'"
Though she's no longer working for the County Attorney's Office, Jan Jennings defends her ex-employers, saying that what may look like retaliation really wasn't.
"I know it sort of looks like retaliation against Liz, but that's really not how it happened," Jennings says. "Everything came together around the time Liz told me about Barnett. Before Barnett ever came up, Paul had told me to get on track with Liz on work-related issues. Afterward, Liz felt that nobody believed her, because it wasn't substantiated. It wasn't that. It was just that you couldn't substantiate it."
Many claims of alleged sexual harassment turn into he-said, she-said broadsides. Manuals on the subject instruct employers to examine any history of both the accused and the accuser while trying to sort things out. Elizabeth Sukenic apparently hasn't made similar allegations against anyone.
But records obtained by New Times show that, in February 1993, a female investigator in the County Attorney's Office complained in writing to a supervisor about Barnett Lotstein's allegedly wayward behavior. In her memo, the woman conceded the incidents -- Lotstein allegedly "inappropriately" touched her twice -- "could have been accidental or possibly unknowing, but conduct such as this is inappropriate and offensive, as well as embarrassing."
The investigator (whose name isn't being used in this story) later accepted Lotstein's apology for twice touching her "inappropriately" -- actually, he said he didn't even know he'd done it. Lotstein says he and the investigator currently have a cordial and professional relationship.
However, Paul Ahler's handwritten notes in a file about the 1993 allegations indicate that he, too, spoke with the investigator after Lotstein apologized:
"Barnett apologized. She accepted. She said she is not sure she believes his explanation."
Barnett Lotstein joined the Maricopa County Attorney's Office in 1992, after more than 15 years at the Arizona Attorney General's Office. A veteran career prosecutor originally from Pennsylvania, he tried a slew of mostly white-collar cases in the 1970s and 1980s.
Easily the most noticed was the 1988 money-laundering trial of impeached Arizona Governor Evan Mecham, in which Lotstein shared duties with another prosecutor. Mecham dubbed his adversary "Loathstein" during the proceedings, which ended in an acquittal.
In 1992, County Attorney Rick Romley recruited Lotstein as a senior prosecutor, with an eye on using the babbling barrister to serve as his liaison with legislators and the media. Lotstein tried cases for a time, earning a commendation letter from then-judge Michael Dann after a successful prosecution for "the best cross-examination I have seen by any attorney, criminal or civil, in over 12 years with the court."
In February 1993, however, Lotstein faced trouble at his new job, when the first allegations of sexual misconduct were leveled against him. This was the complaint filed by the female investigator, in the form of a memo to her supervisor.
"This memo is to inform you of the conduct of attorney Barnett Lotstein, which I believe is inappropriate," it started. The one-page document alleged Lotstein first had "brushed his arm against my left breast, which I believed was accidental, even though he did not acknowledge his actions and no apology was offered."
Then, a week or two later, "Attorney Lotstein put his hand, palm up, in my lap as if he were reaching for the next page, resting it in the crotch area of my slacks. At this very moment, Mr. Romley came into my office to check on the progress of the assignment, and Lotstein raised his hand from this position to waist level."
The office handled this investigation less formally than it would the Sukenic matter years later. Chief deputy Ahler's handwritten notes say Lotstein told him "that any touching was totally accidental and unknowing. He offered to apologize. I advised him to be more aware of his movements around female employees."
Lotstein tells New Times, "This was around the time of the Anita Hill incident, and people were very sensitive about these kinds of issues. I didn't deny doing it, but I had no recollection of either incident, either. We just moved on with life."
Despite the bump in the road, Lotstein's star inside the County Attorney's Office continued to ascend.
That November, Romley signed his annual job evaluation of Lotstein. Calling his aide an invaluable staff member, Romley added, "The only constructive comment I can make to Barnett is a need to be more sensitive to fellow employees."
The investigator's allegations resurfaced in early 1996, during a heated political battle between Romley and Attorney General Grant Woods in which Lotstein took an active role. Officials from the AG's Office repeatedly tried to get the female investigator to cooperate for a possible prosecution of Lotstein, but records indicate she declined.
At least two media outlets got tipped, but declined to report anything. The case again went away, for a time.
In the fall of 1998, Liz Sukenic was ready to return to work.
She and her husband, Howard, have two young daughters, and are active in community activities. Until now, the only mention of Elizabeth Sukenic in local media has been a 1993 tidbit about the Camelback Young Republicans, of which she then was president.
That October, Howard was about to move from the County Attorney's Office -- where he was a supervisor -- into private practice. He and Barnett Lotstein were friends as well as colleagues, Lotstein recalls, and they'd occasionally eat lunch, and attend Arizona State games together.
Around that time, the Sukenics hosted a party at their Scottsdale home, which Lotstein and Rick Romley attended. The Sukenics liked Romley, and had donated to his reelection campaigns. During the party, Liz Sukenic spoke to Romley about going to work at the County Attorney's Office. The timing was good, as he had an opening for the job of community relations director.
Sukenic started work as a part-time employee in October 1998, at $19.42 an hour. Sukenic's new employers gave her wide latitude in her new position, a rarity in a shop whose supervisors usually keep tight leashes on subordinates. Sukenic reported at first only to Romley and Paul Ahler.
Personnel records and other documents indicate that Liz Sukenic agreed to work 20 hours weekly at the office, and another 10 at home, a schedule that allowed her to do her job and complete her child-rearing duties.
In short, Sukenic did what she'd been hired to do -- make Rick Romley and his office look better.
But things weren't all going swimmingly on the eighth floor. In early 1999, according to the claim letter and other documentation, Liz Sukenic told her husband about an encounter with Barnett Lotstein. She and Lotstein had been alone in an office elevator, she said, when he told her, "Hey, it's you and me. What we could do in this elevator." "It won't happen, Barnett," she'd responded.
Howard Sukenic later told investigators he hadn't confronted Lotstein because Elizabeth told him she'd "handled" the matter. Sukenic said he did confide in deputy county attorney Jim Blake, then a division chief who was godfather to the Sukenics' oldest child.
Blake confirmed that during his interview with investigators after the allegations came to light. From the county attorney's investigative report into the Lotstein/Sukenic matter: "Mr. Blake got the impression that comment was sexual in nature, even though it was not stated by Mr. Sukenic. When asked how Mr. Sukenic appeared when he told him, Mr. Blake [said] Howard seemed very surprised and upset, saying, 'Can you believe a friend would do something like that?'"
(That supervisor Blake didn't report the allegations involving Liz Sukenic -- a good friend -- to higher-ups cost him his job as division chief. Blake said he didn't say anything because Howard Sukenic told him things were under control. Colleagues say he resigned as a supervisor before his superiors demoted him. He's now a line prosecutor in Mesa.)
Lotstein says he doesn't recall ever being alone in an elevator with Liz Sukenic. And he says he had no clue that Sukenic felt uncomfortable around him.
To the contrary, Lotstein says, "She would come into my office and sit down -- sometimes with the door closed -- and we'd talk about work and personal stuff. If she felt so uncomfortable, it seems that you stay away from that person, you don't sit around with that person and talk about personal things, you don't put your arm around that person as she did to me just before all this came out."
Sukenic's concerns about Lotstein didn't seem to affect her successes at the office. She earned an excellent performance evaluation in July 1999, with no "needs improvements" in any category. By then, Jan Jennings had become Sukenic's immediate supervisor.
"Liz effectively utilizes her time, and is willing to put in the extra hours to complete a job assignment," Jennings wrote in the evaluation, which Ahler signed. ". . . Liz is in a unique position, the possibilities are really endless. I want her to use her creative side and 'go outside the box.' I will do my part to help Liz succeed by working closely with her during the upcoming year."
Two months later, in September, Sukenic received a merit pay raise, to $20.16 an hour. Around that time, however, Sukenic allegedly had a second bad experience with Lotstein. A copy of her handwritten recollection is part of the internal investigative report into the matter:
"I can't remember our conversation exactly, except that, out of the blue, no rhyme or reason, he said, 'I could just kiss you.'" Sukenic didn't tell her husband about this and a subsequent alleged incident until after she spilled the beans to Jennings last February.
By then, Howard Sukenic had returned to the County Attorney's Office as a prosecutor. Barnett Lotstein says that, at the request of both Sukenics, he put in a good word with Rick Romley, which may have expedited Howard's rehiring.
Coincidentally, in late 1999, the old complaint against Lotstein by the female investigator yet again reared its head. This time, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office sniffed around, informing prosecutors that they were investigating Lotstein. The timing of the "investigation" was suspect, in that Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Rick Romley -- and, by proxy, the vocal Lotstein -- were engaging in a public war of words.
The County Attorney's Office forwarded its files on the 1993 complaint to the attorney general for independent review. It went nowhere as a potential criminal case, and an assistant AG tells New Times he soon returned the files.
Liz Sukenic's third incident with Barnett Lotstein occurred around that time, if her chronology is accurate. Sukenic later wrote that Lotstein had entered her office, where, ". . . I noticed he was looking at my legs and shoes. He made me feel uncomfortable. He commented about my shoes and said he liked my shoes (the shoes were strappy black leather). . . . He also noticed a bruise on my thigh."
Lotstein says he did comment about the bruise, though he says it was closer to her knee than her thigh. But he says there was nothing sexual about his remark.
"It seems to me that the things she alleged wouldn't be something to become so overwhelmed about," Lotstein says. "A lot of people have told me that Liz is a very sensitive, emotional woman, and maybe that plays into this. I don't know."
Jan Jennings was chatting with Liz Sukenic on the morning of February 3, 2000, about pending office moves on the eighth floor. In passing, she noted that Sukenic wouldn't have to work near special assistant Jerry Landau anymore, a gentleman known to have a foghorn of a voice.
No, Sukenic said, it was Barnett Lotstein she wanted to be away from. In separate documents and interviews, the women have said Sukenic then tearfully told Jennings of the three alleged episodes involving the special assistant.
From the Sukenic letter to Maricopa County: "Jan Jennings responded, 'You know, this guy has a history of this, he's done it before. They ought to fire his ass and hire Howard [Sukenic] for the position. You know, you have put me in the position of reporting this because it is sexual harassment. . . . Elizabeth explained that she didn't want to report the incidents because she feared that Lotstein was too important. She specifically told Jennings that she feared retaliation and that too many people would be hurt . . ."
Jennings says she never told Liz Sukenic or anyone else that Lotstein had a history of sexual harassment, because she didn't know it at the time.
"It ticks me off that she said that," Jennings tells New Times. "Now, from what I learned later, people in the office did know about the prior incident with the investigator, but I didn't. I do remember Liz saying she didn't want to report it because Barnett is too important. I told her I thought I was going to have to pass it along."
Paul Ahler ordered an investigation, which senior office investigator Bill Heath completed 11 days later, on February 14. Heath separately interviewed Lotstein, Elizabeth and Howard Sukenic, Jan Jennings, prosecutor Jim Blake, and three women who work on the eighth floor.
According to Heath's report, Liz Sukenic told him she "felt that Mr. Lotstein was 'leering' at her legs and shoes [during the incident in her office]. . . . During the conversation with her, he did not make eye contact, but focused on her legs and shoes."
The three women said they'd never noticed any tension or discomfort between Liz Sukenic and Barnett Lotstein. In fact, research analyst Jaime Daddona told Heath of an event "about a week prior to the start of this inquiry, when she, Mr. Lotstein, and [another woman] were standing around talking, and Mrs. Sukenic . . . joined them in the conversation, with everyone laughing and joking about nothing in particular. Ms. Daddona related that Mrs. Sukenic jokingly placed her arm around Barnett and half-patted and half-hugged his back and shoulder area."
Liz Sukenic conceded to Heath that she "may have 'patted' Mr. Lotstein on the back on one occasion, but that she has never had any other physical contact with him on any occasion, social or work-related."
Lotstein said he'd done nothing wrong.
On February 22, Ahler wrote his "Dear Liz" letter, in which he called her allegations unsubstantiated and warned her to keep her complaint and investigation confidential. He sent essentially the same letter to Lotstein, with a word of caution: "Even though Ms. Sukenic's allegations of sexual harassment cannot be sustained, you are counseled to use better judgment when discussing personal matters with co-employees. Comments about bruising or someone's personal appearance can be misconstrued if taken in the wrong context."
Sukenic responded to Ahler on February 28: "I understand that you felt these incidents should have been reported immediately as they happened but, quite frankly, I realized that Mr. Lotstein has a great deal of power and influence in the office, and I was quite scared to come forward for fear of my accounts being dismissed in light of Mr. Lotstein's position. Furthermore, I was fearful of retaliatory actions which would not only affect my career, but also, in subsequent time, my husband's."
Liz Sukenic continued to work at the office after the investigation into her allegations ended, but not for long. Almost immediately, she alleges in her letter to the county, "the retaliation then began."
Sukenic claims that, on March 3, Jan Jennings told her Rick Romley no longer wanted her to attend the bimonthly division chiefs' meetings, as she'd been doing since being hired. That day, Jennings also ordered her, for the first time, to provide a weekly activity calendar. A few days later, the office removed Sukenic as its representative on two boards. On March 7, Jennings questioned Sukenic in a terse e-mail about how much time she'd been putting in at the office (Romley earlier had barred Sukenic from working at home anymore).
"Elizabeth got the message loud and clear," her attorney, Amy Langerman, wrote in the letter. "She resigned effective March 9."
In her resignation letter to Jan Jennings, Sukenic wrote, "I have always worked more hours than I was paid for, and this was the first time that anyone has told me that I had to be in the office until 2:30 p.m. I can only wonder why you, Paul and Rick have changed your position so dramatically. . . . Until the time I told you of special assistant Barnett Lotstein's sexual harassment of me, which you then reported, I had received a great deal of praise from you, Paul Ahler and Rick Romley."
Fifteen days after Sukenic quit, she got two letters, both of which appeared to be designed to discourage her from pursuing her grievances against Lotstein and the County Attorney's Office.
One letter came in the mail from attorney Georgia Staton, who said she was representing Barnett Lotstein. It warned Sukenic to stop spreading false statements about her client. That day, investigator Bill Heath personally delivered a letter from Paul Ahler to the Sukenics' home. It started "Dear Ms. Sukenic," instead of the more familiar "Dear Liz."
Ahler denied any retaliation, noting, for example, that Sukenic hadn't been the only employee who wouldn't be attending the division chiefs' meetings anymore. Among other concerns, the letter also refers to "performance problems" Sukenic allegedly had been having in supervising a video production for a local cable channel.
"I understand you are frustrated and angry because your complaint of unprofessional conduct was not sustained," the chief deputy wrote. "You should not, however, allow those feelings to color your perceptions of the treatment that you received as an employee."
Jan Jennings repeats that she doesn't believe anyone retaliated against Liz Sukenic:
"Before the Barnett thing came up, it was clear that there had been some miscommunication up there. Rick was assigning her things that I didn't know about, and she was assigning herself things. Finally, I said to Paul [Ahler], 'Let's be on the same page about what Rick wants Liz to do.' It was just an unfortunate set of circumstances."
Contact the author at his online address: email@example.com
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
- Phoenix Suspect in Garland Attack Demands New Lawyer, Complains About DNA Testing
- As Arpaio's Trial Approaches, More MCSO Shenanigans Pop Out of the Woodwork
- Hardcore Pot Activists Want Marijuana Legalized in Arizona Under Their Terms — or Not...