City could be swept into councilmen’s suit
The city of Costa Mesa could soon be in the middle of a legal battle between two councilmen and the police union.
For weeks, the Costa Mesa Police Officers’ Assn. has requested that the city pay for its legal defense against a lawsuit filed by Costa Mesa’s mayor and mayor pro tem.
Now that request is on the agenda for a closed-session meeting Tuesday, raising the possibility that Costa Mesa could end up in a highly unusual legal situation of defending its employees from a lawsuit filed by two of its own elected officials.
The municipality so far has avoided entanglement in the legal action that, among other things, accuses the police association and its former law firm of attaching a GPS device to one councilman’s car.
The police association says it had no knowledge of the alleged misdeeds and contends officers were working within the scope of their city jobs when they got pulled into the legal fray.
Lawyers representing Mayor Jim Righeimer and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger denounced the idea of Costa Mesa paying for the union’s legal fees.
“This lawsuit is one thing, but to take taxpayer money to benefit those who allegedly engaged in this act directly or indirectly is outrageous,” Irvine-based attorney John Manly said.
In August, the two councilmen sued the police association, its former law firm and a private investigator, alleging the three conspired to gain the upper hand in contract negotiations.
On Thursday, Manly’s firm held a press conference outside of Orange County Superior Court’s Newport Beach division and highlighted new accusations that allege the defendants plotted to spy on Mensinger during the 2012 election season.
The Orange County’s district attorney’s office told the councilman that someone placed a GPS tracking device on his truck and frequently trespassed on his Costa Mesa home’s driveway to charge it, court documents state.
Exactly how long the device was allegedly in place, and who attached it, isn’t clear.
Lackie, Dammeier McGill & Ethir is also the target of an FBI and Orange County district attorney’s investigation, according to allegations in the councilmen’s lawsuit.
“The conduct that we have discovered as a result of the district attorney disclosing it to the alleged victim in the case, Mr. Mensinger, is such a grotesque violation of his right to privacy that it’s beyond words,” Manly said. “Politics in Costa Mesa shouldn’t be a contact sport, but I guess we’ve come to expect that.”
Though comprised of city employees, the association is a separate entity that represents police officers in contract negotiations, employment disputes and other matters.
Much of the lawsuit stems from a night when a private investigator, Chris Lanzillo, was allegedly tracking Mensinger and followed him to a bar in Costa Mesa, according to the lawsuit.
Lanzillo followed Righeimer from the bar where the two councilmen met. The private investigator reported the mayor as a possible drunk driver, saying he saw an SUV swerving and speeding.
A police officer responded to Righeimer’s home and administered a sobriety test while the mayor’s family watched in fear, the lawsuit alleges. Righeimer was cleared of DUI and later produced receipts for two Diet Cokes.
The police association denies any knowledge of Lackie, Dammeier McGill & Ethir’s alleged tactics and fired the attorneys in August 2012. The law firm has since dissolved.
“We did not direct or employ L, D, M & E or Lanzillo to carry out these acts,” said Det. Sgt. Ed Everett, the police association president. “As a result of one of the POA members acting in the normal course and scope of their duties, they responded to this call, which has led to this lawsuit.”
In such a situation, the city has a responsibility to protect its employees and cover legal fees, Everett said.
“Please remember that the mayor was never detained,” Everett said. “He consented to come out of his home and cooperated with the investigation because he wanted to. A normal citizen would be suing the city and the officer [as opposed to the police association].”
Costa Mesa’s city attorney did not respond Thursday to an email and voice mail asking for a legal opinion about paying the association’s fees.
It’s unclear whether Mensinger and Righeimer can be involved in the decision, and Manly said they would recuse themselves, if advised to do so by the city attorney.
Manly blasted the idea that the decision would be made behind closed doors Tuesday. He wants a vote in public session.
“Councilwoman [Sandy] Genis and Councilwoman [Wendy] Leece, a message is being sent to you today: Don’t hold this meeting in secret,” Manly said, naming Mensinger and Righeimer’s political opponents on the body.
Leece requested last week that the item be placed on an agenda, according to Everett.
Manly asserted that Genis and Leece have been lackadaisical in their reaction to his client’s lawsuit. He accused them of playing politics instead of demanding answers from the police association. Genis and Leece often vote opposite of the council majority — Righeimer, Mensinger and Councilman Gary Monahan.
“This is not Putin’s Russia,” Manly said. “This is Costa Mesa.”
Genis said she wasn’t even aware of the association’s request until Wednesday.
“How could I be playing politics when I didn’t even know anything was happening?” she asked.
She said the new accusation about GPS tracking is “creepy,” but added the lawsuit is likely a waste of time.
“Maybe the police association did do something, but I’ve never seen any evidence,” she said.
Leece said Thursday that it would be inappropriate for her to comment.
The police association has defended itself in legal filings by saying the lawsuit is an attempt to muzzle Mensinger and Righeimer’s political opponents.
The union has been at odds with the councilmen because of their push to rein in public employee costs including pensions. The association campaigned heavily against Righeimer’s election.
“Unfortunately this case is another attempt to stifle and disparage the POA and its members, and it comes at the expense of the residents of Costa Mesa,” Everett said.
Lawyers for the police association have asked a judge to dismiss the suit and filed a motion accusing the plaintiffs of suppressing the 1st Amendment right to criticize public officials.
A filing intended to stop what’s know as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation has frozen depositions and other parts of discovery.
Manly pressured the association to drop that defense and allow his firm to take statements under oath and obtain documents.
“Police officers are rightly held in high regard,” Manly said. “Those organizations who are associated with police officers, the public has the right to expect a higher standard. “Simply put, the Costa Mesa Police Officers’ Assn. is not acting within those standards. It’s dodging and weaving and hiding information. And that’s got to stop.”