Costa Mesa officials may investigate reported tracking of councilmen

Costa Mesa city leaders say they will look into investigating the reported surveillance of three councilmen

The city manager and police chief in Costa Mesa have issued an apology to three council members who were allegedly surveilled during bitter contract negotiations with police and vowed to examine the conduct of city officers.

Tom Hatch, Costa Mesa's chief executive officer, promised a formal investigation — perhaps in conjunction with the district attorney's office — if he concludes it is warranted.

"We find this deeply concerning and will work vigorously to obtain and evaluate all information about the conduct of any involved Costa Mesa police officers," Hatch and acting police Chief Rob Sharpnack said in a joint statement Monday.

The apology comes after last week's arrest of two private investigators who worked as hired hands for a law firm that had been retained by the city's police union. The private eyes are accused of attaching a GPS device to one councilman's car and following him for weeks. Another councilman was allegedly set up in a fake DUI report.

Police have tried to distance themselves from the 2012 incidents, but emails contained in the criminal complaint filed against the detectives capture officers mocking the councilmen and suggesting creative ways to catch them behaving badly.

In one email, an officer calls the city's mayor "an idiot" and another council member a likely "doper" with moral issues. Officer Mitch Johnson, then the treasurer of the police union, suggests in an email that it might be smart to follow two of the councilmen to Las Vegas where "I could totally see him sniffing cocaine [off] a prostitute."

When investigators from the Orange County district attorney's office later went to collect evidence from police, they learned the union's then-president had deleted his emails from the time of the alleged fake DUI report.

Some police officers initially were reluctant to cooperate with county prosecutors and were offered immunity in exchange for their cooperation. Police maintain they had no hand in the alleged wrongdoing.

The incidents played out in the months prior to the city's elections and at a time when city-union relations were at a low ebb as Jim Righeimer, Steve Mensinger and Gary Monahan — who formed the City Council majority — tried to reduce police pensions and outsource City Hall jobs.

The two detectives who are accused of tailing the council members worked with Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, an Upland law firm that represented scores of law enforcement agencies across California and had a reputation for its aggressive style of negotiations. It has since dissolved.

At the time, the Costa Mesa police union was paying the law firm a premium to dig up dirt on the three council members, according to the affidavit. But court documents show that union leaders were growing dissatisfied with the lack of results.

According to the criminal complaint, the two private detectives showed up in Costa Mesa on an August night in 2012, first sending in a female "operative" — dressed in a revealing blouse — to flirt with Monahan, who was working at his sports bar. The woman, who had photos of all three council members on her cell phone, allegedly told authorities she knew Scott Impola, one of the detectives.

Later, the other detective, Christopher Lanzillo, said he saw Righeimer "stumble out" of Monahan's tavern and drive erratically through the city streets, according to the complaint. The detective placed a 911 call and Righeimer was questioned and given a sobriety test by a city police officer. The officer concluded the councilman was sober.

The affidavit says that after passing the sobriety test, Righeimer and his wife spotted Lanzillo in his parked car and ran into the road to confront him, but that the detective drove off.

"I am an elected official, we are in the middle of negotiations with the police and someone all of a sudden follows me?" Righeimer said to the officer.

The law firm has denied that it had direct knowledge of the alleged DUI report. But the affidavit shows that Lanzillo talked with Dieter Dammeier, a partner in the law firm, before and after the DUI call was made. It also shows the two exchanged a coded text message made up of a series of letters and back slashes. The two detectives exchanged similar coded messages.

Eventually, Lanzillo sent Dammeier a text message saying that he had "exposed the firm," apologized and said he would resign.

"Tell them I went rogue and u had no idea and u immediately fired me," he wrote.

jeremiah.dobruck2@latimes.com

bradley.zint@latimes.com

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