A private investigator hired to tail Costa Mesa Councilmen Gary Monahan and Steve Mensinger said he was sent to Monahan’s sports bar with a woman to see whether Monahan would behave inappropriately.
Chris Lanzillo, a Menifee investigator and former police officer, told the Daily Pilot that he went to Monahan’s bar on Aug. 22 on behalf of a client he would not name to gather dirt on Monahan and Mensinger, who were running for City Council.
Lanzillo, who said his surveillance actions were entirely legal, denied being familiar with Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer before following him home and reporting him as a possible drunk driver. Police cleared Righeimer of driving drunk, and the councilman produced a receipt for two Diet Cokes.
Righeimer has contended he was set up by organized labor because of his efforts to reduce what he deems overly generous city employee compensation and retirement packages. Labor representatives have denied any advance knowledge of, or responsibility for, Lanzillo’s actions.
In Lanzillo’s account of events, the woman, whom he said was not paid for her efforts to flirt with Monahan, sat at a table at the bar in Skosh Monahan’s Steakhouse and Irish Pub, which the councilman owns, smiled at Monahan, and then interacted with him as he poured whiskey.
Due to the ongoing investigation into Lanzillo, Monahan said he has been asked by prosecutors not to comment on the alleged setup.
“I’ve pretty much been advised by the D.A. not to say anything, not to get involved,” Monahan said in a phone message left for a Pilot reporter Friday. “It is what it is, and the D.A. is investigating what happened on that particular day. That’s pretty much the best I can do for you until they get finished [with the investigation].”
Righeimer was at the bar that night and he said the woman in question can be seen on surveillance video entering the bar behind him. That video is now under the district attorney’s control and could not be reviewed by the Daily Pilot. Righeimer didn’t remember any of Monahan’s interactions with the woman.
“To say I saw her would actually be a stretch,” he said. “Gary’s is an open restaurant. She was at this table right next to the bar. [Monahan] was going back and forth, his daughter got us Diet Cokes.”
However, another person with knowledge of the investigation who requested anonymity told the Daily Pilot that Monahan ignored the woman’s overtures and kept working. Monahan is married.
Righeimer condemned Lanzillo’s actions, saying, “I think our people and people in this country should be disturbed by the cavalier attitude of a P.I. that was hired by our police association.”
He alleged that such tactics are designed to “destroy people’s lives and families.”
“You send a woman in to get something to happen, and then you get that dirt,” he said. “They do not use that dirt on a mailer. That’s called extortion.”
Mensinger called on the police association to condemn the investigator’s tactics.
“I will be watching carefully those union leaders that repudiate this and those that don’t,” Mensinger said.
The head of the police union, Jason Chamness, was out of town Friday and could not be reached for comment. In past interviews, however, he has said his organization did not retain Lanzillo and had no prior awareness of the alleged DUI setup.
The POA previously retained a law firm for which Lanzillo worked — Lackie, Dammeier McGill & Ethir — but fired the firm shortly after Lanzillo called 911 about Righeimer.
In addition to the Costa Mesa Police Officers Assn., the Orange County Employees Assn., which represents city employees, also denied any involvement.
The Orange County district attorney’s office is investigating the DUI call but so far has declined to comment on the case. Lanzillo has not been charged in the case, which Costa Mesa police turned over to the D.A. Lanzillo’s attorney told the Pilot he doubts prosecutors will file a case.
Mensinger issued a statement following publication Friday of the opinion column in the Orange County Register that was the first to report Lanzillo worked with a woman to test Monahan.
“I am saddened by the confirmation that a detective who worked for our police department’s law firm was trying to entrap me and my council colleagues,” Mensinger said. “Why? So members of their union can retire earlier? This is a chilling, Chicago-style message to future leaders: Play by their rules or they will ruin your life.”
Costa Mesa Police Chief Tom Gazsi said Friday morning that he couldn’t comment on details of the investigation, except to say that one is ongoing.
“The department conducted the initial thorough investigation related to this matter,” he said. “That investigation was provided to the district attorney’s office for additional work, and that investigation, with the collaboration of the Costa Mesa Police Department, continues.”
The city’s CEO, Tom Hatch, said in a statement that he has every confidence in the district attorney holding those culpable accountable.
“If true, the despicable tactics described in today’s Orange County Register have to be disturbing to every Costa Mesa resident and anyone who cares about representative government,” Hatch wrote. “The city management team has confidence in the Orange County district attorney’s office to fully investigate the incident, and, if appropriate, hold those accountable for their actions. Resolving this issue will allow Costa Mesa residents to move forward in a united manner and get back to the business of being a great city.”