Ex-police union chief testifies in Costa Mesa spying case hearing
As part of a deal that protects its officers from prosecution, the former head of the Costa Mesa police union testified Wednesday at a hearing for two private investigators accused of spying on city councilmen in the run-up to a contentious 2012 election.
To secure immunity from prosecutors for the rank-and-file officers it represents, the Costa Mesa Police Assn. agreed to disclose private communications it had with a law firm that allegedly employed the two PIs: Christopher Lanzillo and Scott Impola.
The now-dissolved law firm, Upland-based Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, also represented the police association at the time.
Lanzillo and Impola, both former Riverside police officers, are facing felony conspiracy and false imprisonment charges for allegedly tracking a council member’s car by GPS and calling in a false DUI on Councilman Jim Righeimer.
Wednesday’s testimony was part of a preliminary hearing that will determine if there is enough evidence to hold Lanzillo and Impola for trial. The two have pleaded not guilty, and their hearing is expected to wrap up Thursday.
The former association president, Officer Jason Chamness, testified that in 2012 he asked law firm partner Dieter Dammeier to have investigators dig up “dirt” on a group of City Council candidates the union clashed with politically.
The candidates — Planning Commissioner Colin McCarthy and incumbent Councilmen Steve Mensinger and Gary Monahan — were allied with Righeimer and campaigned to cut spending and reduce pension costs.
“We felt he was not good for public safety,” Chamness said, adding that the association’s board feared Righeimier would “destroy” the department.
In fact, Chamness said, he became impatient in early 2012 when investigators failed to turn up any research that could harm the candidates.
“I voiced my frustration to (Dammeier) a couple of times,” Chamness testified.
The charges against Lanzillo and Impola stem partially from the evening of Aug. 22, 2012.
Prosecutors allege the two were surveilling Monahan at his Costa Mesa bar and restaurant, Skosh Monahan’s.
Righeimer was also at the pub, and when he left, Lanzillo allegedly followed and called police to say he saw Righeimer swerving in and out of lanes, possibly driving drunk.
An officer responded to Righeimer’s home and conducted a field sobriety test, finding no impairment.
But Righeimer noticed Lanzillo, who’d tailed Righeimer all the way home. Audio recorded by the police officer captures Righeimer asking who the man who followed him is.
“I’m an elected official, we’re in the middle of negotiations with police, and someone follows me?” he asks.
The same day, Lanzillo contacted an I.T. contractor working for Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir and asked how to erase his phone, district attorney investigator Kory DeGraffenreid testified Wednesday.
The phone number Lanzillo used to call 911 had been registered to the law firm, but two days after the incident, it was re-registered to Lanzillo’s wife, DeGraffenreid said.
DeGraffenreid also testified that authorities uncovered GPS records on computers seized during searches of Lanzillo and Impola’s homes.
Investigators also found a description of Mensinger’s truck and its “I (heart) Costa Mesa” bumper sticker on Lanzillo’s computer, according to DeGraffenreid.
DeGraffenreid testified she matched many of the GPS records to appointments listed in Mensinger’s calendar or other locations he frequented.
Chamness testified that he never talked to Dammeier about any GPs trafficking or a DUI setup.
He said he learned about Lanzillo and his 911 call only after it happened.
In fact, he testified, another officer who heard the incident over the radio joked with Chamness that someone would try to say the police union was responsible for it.
“We laughed about it and said, ‘Oh we’re going to be blamed for this,’” Chamness said.