A private investigator whom prosecutors allege was trying to dig up dirt on three Costa Mesa councilmen during the city's contentious 2012 election pleaded guilty Wednesday in Orange County Superior Court to four felony counts related to the case.
Christopher Lanzillo, 46, of Lake Arrowhead admitted to two felony counts of conspiracy to commit a crime of unlawful use of electronic tracking device, one felony count of false imprisonment by deceit, and one felony count of conspiracy to commit a crime of falsely reporting crime to an agency, according to the Orange County district attorney's office.
The counts stem from accusations that he illegally tracked Mayor Steve Mensinger and a lawyer, and submitted a false drunk-driving report against Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer.
Lanzillo, a former Riverside police detective, previously had pleaded not guilty to the charges, according to court records.
Scott Alan Impola, 48, of Canyon Lake is facing the same charges, prosecutors said. He has pleaded not guilty and his trial is expected to begin in March.
Lanzillo faces up to four years and four months in prison, depending on what Judge W. Michael Hayes decides during a sentencing hearing in Santa Ana scheduled for Jan. 13, 2017.
Wednesday afternoon's changed plea surprised Robert Mestman, the Orange County prosecutor who was preparing for what was expected to be a four-day trial starting this week.
"It was an open plea to the court," he said. "There were no deals."
Lanzillo's attorney could not immediately be reached for comment.
Prosecutors contend that Lanzillo and Impola were trying to dig up dirt on Mensinger, Righeimer and Councilman Gary Monahan, who were feuding with Costa Mesa's police union in the months before the city's general election in November 2012.
Authorities contend Lanzillo and Impola were working for the now-defunct Upland law firm Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, which represented the Costa Mesa Police Assn. at the time.
Prosecutors alleged in previous hearings that the association, which represents rank-and-file officers, had recently increased the firm's retainer and had given instructions to find information that could be damaging to the council members, two of whom — Mensinger and Monahan — were running for reelection.
Mensinger — who along with Righeimer has filed a separate civil suit against Lanzillo, the police association and Lackie, Dammeier alleging that the trio harassed and intimidated them during the 2012 election — said Wednesday that Lanzillo's plea provides vindication against criticism from some in the community who have urged the councilmen to drop their case.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this article stated that Steve Mensinger made his comments on Tuesday. Mensinger made his comments on Wednesday.
"I think the message is clear: The unions and their elected surrogates that entertain tactics to disparage and extort elected officials should be put on notice that justice will be served," Mensinger said.
Neither the police union nor Lackie, Dammeier has been charged with a crime. The association has said it had no prior knowledge of any wrongdoing and that it fired the law firm soon after the DUI stop came to light.
John Manly, an attorney representing Mensinger and Righeimer in the civil suit, said Wednesday's plea shows those "who ridiculed my clients, said this was nothing and basically did everything they could to use this against them should be ashamed of themselves."
Manly contended that Lanzillo, "certain members" of the Costa Mesa police union and Lackie, Dammeier collectively "engaged in an intentional effort to illegally invade our clients' private lives, to put them in a false light, to get them arrested and to put tracking devices on their cars — all because they disagreed with them on a political issue. While one might expect that in Putin's Russia, one shouldn't expect that in Costa Mesa."
Sy Everett, the police association's attorney in the civil case, said Lanzillo's plea has "no impact" on the association.
"I can tell you that the CMPA is pleased that justice has been served and they will continue to assist the D.A. with any further investigation," he said, adding that the union did not "influence, direct or have any knowledge of any criminal wrongdoing."
Much of the case against the private investigators is related to the night of Aug. 22, 2012, when prosecutors say Impola and a woman working with him were surveilling Monahan at his restaurant in Costa Mesa.
Prosecutors allege that Impola saw Righeimer at the restaurant and then contacted Lanzillo, who tailed Righeimer after Righeimer left the business and drove away.
According to testimony at a preliminary hearing, Lanzillo called 911 to report that Righeimer was swerving in and out of lanes as he drove.
After Righeimer arrived at his Mesa Verde home, a Costa Mesa police officer responded to the DUI call and administered a field sobriety test, which Righeimer passed.
Though Righeimer, who later told the public he only drank Diet Coke that night, consented to the test and his contact with the officer lasted less than one minute, the district attorney's office has argued that the false DUI report caused the officer to detain Righeimer outside his home, justifying the false-imprisonment charge.
"This case revolves around the Costa Mesa Police Assn. hiring private investigators to get information to extort elected officials for the benefit of their members' salary and pensions," Righeimer said Wednesday. "This is pure political corruption."