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State appellate court hears arguments in case involving Costa Mesa councilmen

A state appellate court heard arguments Friday in an ongoing lawsuit accusing the Costa Mesa Police Assn., its former law firm and a private investigator of conspiring against two Costa Mesa councilmen.

Attorney Andrew Chang argued that the police union, the firm Lackie, Dammeier, McGill and Ethir, and investigator Chris Lanzillo, were "masterminds" in a scheme to implicate the councilmen during the 2012 election.

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Chang represents Costa Mesa Mayor Steve Mensinger, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer and Righeimer's wife, Lene.

Their case accuses Lanzillo, a former Riverside police detective working for the now-dissolved law firm, of falsely reporting to police that Righeimer — considered an adversary to the union for his tough stances on pension reform — was driving drunk. Lanzillo made the call after he saw Righeimer leave Councilman Gary Monahan's bar and restaurant in August 2012.

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A Costa Mesa police officer administered a field sobriety test, and Righeimer passed.

"This was a setup," Chang told associate justices William Rylaarsdam, Eileen Moore and David Thompson of the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana. "This was not someone happening to see someone stumble out of a bar."

Chang and the councilmen's other attorneys have argued that Lanzillo's 911 call is not protected speech — Lanzillo's counsel has argued otherwise — and that his invoking of the 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination more than 200 times during a three-hour deposition in 2014 amounted to a no-contest plea.

Chang contended that the police union and law firm were "all involved" in the conspiracy, which also included Lanzillo's reported coordination with a woman tasked with flirting with Monahan, a political ally of Righeimer and Mensinger, that evening to see if he would behave inappropriately.

Chang contended that the police union was paying for the questionable actions of the law firm, to which Thompson replied, "People pay their lawyers after they hire them, don't they?"

Attorney Sy Everett, who represents the Costa Mesa Police Assn., told the justices that the association never had advance knowledge of the tactics and quickly fired Lackie Dammeier after news of the DUI call surfaced.

The union had "nothing to do" with Lanzillo's call, he said.

Everett added that the association's hiring of Lackie Dammeier, which represented many law enforcement agencies, was certainly within its First Amendment rights.

"You have the right to hire a lawyer to petition on your behalf," Everett said.

The association has also alleged that the lawsuit is an attempt to restrict its members' right to protected political speech. As such, Everett added, the Costa Mesa police union shouldn't be held liable for any allegations levied against the firm or Lanzillo, whom he called "twice removed" from the association.

Everett called the councilmen's case a "strategic lawsuit filed for the benefit of politicians."

Justice Rylaarsdam responded that it's "regretful" if the lawsuit's allegations were, as Everett attested, politically motivated.

"I don't think it speaks well for our political society," Rylaarsdam said, "if that's how you go about it."

Stephen Larson, counsel for Lanzillo and Lackie Dammeier, told the justices that the councilmen have not presented any evidence proving the 911 call was knowingly false.

He also contended that Lanzillo's taking of the Fifth Amendment doesn't imply guilt.

Like Everett, Larson called Righeimer and Mensinger's case "a political effort," to which Rylaarsdam replied, "To justify this as a political effort is pretty sad."

The case, first filed in 2013, was moved up to the appellate court the following year after the police association's motions to dismiss it altogether — on the basis of the union's actions being considered free speech — were denied by a Superior Court judge. The association then appealed the denial.

The justices are expected to issue a ruling within 90 days. If they deny the case's dismissal, all parties can proceed with discovery and it could go to a trial.

A separate criminal case against Lanzillo and an alleged accomplice, Scott Impola, is ongoing. The pair is facing various felony charges, including some in connection to placing a GPS device on Mensinger's vehicle to illegally track his movements.

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