Costa Mesa police wanted detectives to target councilmen, emails show
Police officers encouraged a law firm to monitor three Costa Mesa councilmen and suggested ways to catch the politicians in compromising positions, including tailing them to Las Vegas on a city-sponsored trip, according to emails contained in a criminal complaint.
The emails, which capture police mocking council members, were exchanged in the months leading up to the 2012 city election, when Costa Mesa’s protracted city-union battle was at a full boil.
In one message, the police association’s then-treasurer, Mitch Johnson, suggested the law firm keep an eye on two of the councilmen at a trade convention in Las Vegas in hopes they’d be caught violating California’s open meeting law or behaving improperly.
“I could totally see him sniffing coke [off] a prostitute,” Johnson says of one of the targeted councilmen. “Just a thought.”
In the email, Johnson said he believed the council member was a “doper” and had “moral issues.”
The emails are included in affidavits in a criminal case the Orange County district attorney’s office has filed against two private detectives who were hired hands for the now-defunct law firm Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, which was working for the police association at the time.
The private eyes were arrested last week on suspicion of calling in a false DUI report against one of the council members and placing a GPS device on another’s car during the run-up to the 2012 election.
Police in the Orange County city, who have not been implicated in any alleged illegal activity, fired the law firm and have tried to distance themselves from the 2012 incidents.
But the emails appear to underscore the police union’s contempt for council members Jim Righeimer, Steve Mensinger and Gary Monahan, who formed the council majority that at the time was trying to reduce police pensions and outsource City Hall jobs.
According to the affidavit, police intensified their campaign against the councilmen in March 2012, when the union’s board voted to increase membership dues so it could triple the retainer it paid to Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, then a powerful Los Angeles County law firm that represented more than 100 public safety agencies in California.
Some of that money, the D.A.’s office said, was specifically intended to yield “candidate research” that private investigators would compile through surveillance and other means. Soon after the increase, association board members started discussing ways to damage their political opponents, according to the court documents.
In one email, Johnson called then-Mayor Eric Bever an “idiot” and suggested it was “time to expose his buffoonery and paranoia” by releasing an internal investigation into a complaint the mayor had filed against police.
“I’m loving it,” Johnson wrote when the council appointed Bever as mayor. “There was no reason they put that idiot in that position. If they were smart or had common sense they could have made this a lot harder on us.”
Johnson referred questions to the union’s attorney, Paul S. Meyer, who issued a written statement: “The Costa Mesa Police Officers Association will continue to cooperate and support the D.A.’s office. CMPOA is not accused of any illegal conduct. They did not instruct, direct or know about any illegal acts by the Lackie firm or anyone hired by that firm.”
Most of the affidavit centers around an August night in 2012 when Mensinger, Righeimer and Monahan where gathered at a sports tavern that Monahan owns in Costa Mesa.
According to surveillance video later handed over to county prosecutors, a woman wearing a “lace V-neck blouse exposing her cleavage” appears to flirt with Monahan. One of the private detectives, Scott Impola, was also at sitting at the bar, according to prosecutors.
“She is hooking Monaghan [sic] now,” Impola texts Christopher Lanzillo, the other private detective. “He is in love she has his cell #.”
The woman later told authorities that she knew Impola, but refused to provide further details without legal counsel. Monahan said the woman told him she was looking for work, and that’s why he handed her his business card.
A short time later, Lanzillo placed a 911 call to report that Righeimer was driving erratically and appeared to be intoxicated. A city police officer was dispatched to the councilman’s home, where he passed a sobriety test.
Righeimer later produced a receipt showing he’d only purchased two Diet Cokes at the bar.
Bradley Zint, a reporter for Times Community News, contributed to this report.
Get the Latinx Files newsletter
Stories that capture the multitudes within the American Latinx community.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.