Los Angeles Times

Lawsuit: Firm hired P.I. who tailed officials

A law firm that represented Costa Mesa's police association allegedly admitted that it hired a private investigator in 2012 to catch a member of the City Council in "a compromising position," according a lawsuit filed last month.

If accurate, the complaint filed by the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California's Legal Defense Fund would confirm for whom private investigator Chris Lanzillo was working when he surveilled Costa Mesa's politicians at a bar and ended up following then-Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer home and reporting him as a possible drunk driver.

The August 2012 incident spawned a civil lawsuit, filed by Righeimer, now the mayor, his wife and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger, that accuses the Costa Mesa police union, its former law firm and Lanzillo of using harassment and intimidation to gain the upper hand in contract negotiations.


For the record

A previous version of this story incorrectly indentified to whom two Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir partners allegedly made admissions about tailing Costa Mesa City Councilmen. Those admissions were allegedly made to an administrator of the fund, not a board member.



At the time, the Costa Mesa Police Assn. was represented by Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, an Upland firm known for aggressively representing police officers and their unions.

Lanzillo, a former Riverside police detective, has said he did freelance work for the law firm, but he has never publicly revealed who he was working for on that night.

A lawyer for Lanzillo and Lackie, Dammeier argued that the new accusation should be taken with a grain of salt.

It still hasn't been established who employed the P.I., said attorney Jerry Abeles.

The complaint has "all kinds of demonstratively false allegations," he said.

The Legal Defense Fund filed the complaint in federal court last month against Lackie, Dammeier and some of its attorneys.

It alleges that the firm systematically double- and triple-billed for legal work and then threatened Legal Defense Fund board members when the practice was brought to light. Abeles denied there was any intentional overlapping billing.

The fund is the largest of its kind for peace officers. After news of the alleged overbilling broke last year, attorneys began leaving Lackie, Dammeier. The firm began dissolving in September.

In the 37-page complaint, one paragraph directly references Costa Mesa.

The lawsuit claims that Lackie, Dammeier partner Saku Ethir told one of the Legal Defense Fund's administrators that her firm intended to use attorney-client privilege to keep secret "the use of a private investigator and 'female operative' to attempt to get a sitting member of the Costa Mesa City Council in a compromising position …"

Ethir did not return a voice mail Thursday afternoon.

Lanzillo has admitted to working with a woman to try to get dirt on Councilman Gary Monahan on the same night he followed Righeimer in August 2012.

In an interview with the Daily Pilot that November, Lanzillo said he and the unidentified woman went to Skosh Monahan's, which Monahan owns, to see if the married councilman would behave inappropriately. The councilman, who was up for reelection at the time, ignored the woman's overtures and kept working, a person with knowledge of the investigation told the Pilot at the time.

Lanzillo, however, ended up following Righeimer from the Newport Boulevard bar and calling 911 to report that Righeimer looked like he was driving drunk. An officer responded to Righeimer's Mesa Verde home and cleared him of any charges of impairment. Righeimer produced a receipt for two Diet Cokes.

When the incident garnered press attention, Lackie, Dammeier partner Dieter Dammeier allegedly told a Legal Defense Fund administrator that Lanzillo was indeed working for his firm that night at Skosh Monahan's, said Suzanne Burke Spencer, an attorney representing the fund's board.

However, Dammeier denied that they had instructed Lanzillo to tail Righeimer or call him in for drunk driving, according to Spencer.

The Costa Mesa police association quickly fired the firm after the incident and denied knowing anything about the tactics before that August night.

The Legal Defense Fund's complaint does not allege that members of the Costa Mesa Police Assn. knew about the plan to tail Monahan. Association members have said they had no advance knowledge that Lanzillo was going to call in a report on Righeimer.

A year after the DUI call, the councilmen sued the police association, the law firm and Lanzillo, alleging they conspired against them for political gain. The lawsuit is ongoing.

The suit accuses the defendants of surveilling Mensinger by placing a GPS tracker on his truck during the 2012 election season.

The ties among Lackie, Dammeier, Lanzillo and the police association are critical to the councilmen's case.

"We're convinced [Lanzillo] was working on behalf of Lackie, Dammeier and on behalf of the Costa Mesa police association," said Vince Finaldi, a lawyer representing the councilmen.

He pointed out that Lanzillo was listed on the law firm's website as an employee.

According to the Costa Mesa police union's lawyer, none of that shows the association had any involvement in the conduct alleged in the councilmen's lawsuit.

"The CMPA was and is a current member in good standing with [the Legal Defense Fund]. If, in fact, any of the allegations are true, like [the fund], the CMPA and other police associations were unaware of the alleged misconduct," said attorney Sy Everett. "The CMPA did not direct, influence or condone any third-party independent contractor hired by any law firm."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times