Private eyes accused of tailing O.C. councilmen plead not guilty

Private eyes accused of tailing Costa Mesa councilmen plead not guilty

Two private eyes accused of conducting illegal surveillance on a pair of Costa Mesa city councilmen during the 2012 election season have pleaded not guilty and will be allowed to keep their state-issued licenses to carry firearms as they await trial.

Christopher Lanzillo and Scott Impola – both former Riverside police detectives -- are both charged with conspiracy and false imprisonment.

Both are accused of putting a GPS tracking device on one councilman’s car and calling in a false drunken driving report against a second councilman.

The two private investigators, who entered their pleas Friday, were working for a law firm in 2012 that had been retained by the Costa Mesa police union, which at the time was at odds with the council majority.

After the two were charged, the California attorney general's office had asked that their professional licenses — which include their weapons authorizations — be suspended as a matter of public safety.

But defense lawyers argued that if Lanzillo and Impola were truly a danger, the attorney general's office should have stepped in more than two years ago when local officials began investigating the pair in connection with an alleged plot to harass and intimidate council members Steve Mensinger and Jim Righeimer.

During that time, the district attorney's office alleges, the pair put a GPS tracking device on Mensinger's car and called in a false report of driving under the influence against Righeimer, prompting a police officer to go to Righeimer's home and administer a sobriety test that cleared him of any impairment.

Judge Kazuharu Makino said that more than two years after the alleged crimes, he saw no indication of "ongoing abuse" from Lanzillo and Impola and therefore denied the attorney general's request to suspend their state licenses.

They are, however, required to stay away from Mensinger, Righeimer and Skosh Monahan's, a restaurant owned by Councilman Gary Monahan where they are alleged to have began tailing the politicians.

The Costa Mesa Police Assn. and its former law firm, Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, have not been charged in the case.

Though prosecutors say the union asked the firm to dig up dirt on the two councilmen, there's no evidence that the police association knew of any illegal activity beforehand. However, a civil action brought by Righeimer and Mensinger in 2013 names the police union and the law firm.

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