Two private investigators illegally tracked one Costa Mesa councilman using GPS and called in a fake DUI report on another in 2012 when they were hired to surveil the politicians before an election, according to charges announced Thursday by the Orange County district attorney’s office.
The office also said the investigators worked for a law firm that was retained by the Costa Mesa Police Assn. to dig up dirt on candidates, though the union has repeatedly denied any prior knowledge of the alleged DUI or GPS tracking.
Christopher Joseph Lanzillo, 45, of Lake Arrowhead and Scott Alan Impola, 46, of Canyon Lake put a GPS monitor on Councilman Steve Mensinger’s truck in July 2012 and tracked him for about a month, according to prosecutors, who have filed charges against the men. The two were arrested Thursday.
Then in August, prosecutors allege, Impola and Lanzillo worked together to falsely accuse then-Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer of driving under the influence after he left a bar owned by another Costa Mesa councilman, Gary Monahan.
Because of their report, a Costa Mesa police officer detained Righeimer outside his home, administered a sobriety test and determined that Righeimer hadn’t been drinking, according to the district attorney’s office.
From those incidents, Lanzillo and Impola face one felony count each of conspiracy to commit a crime of unlawful use of an electronic tracking device, false imprisonment by deceit, and conspiracy to commit a crime of falsely reporting a crime.
At the time, Lanzillo and Impola, both former Riverside police detectives, were working for the Upland-based law firm Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, which was on retainer for the Costa Mesa Police Assn., the union representing city police officers, according to prosecutors.
Soon after the DUI report, Righeimer publicly alleged that he had been targeted by the group. A year later, Righeimer, his wife, Lene, and Mensinger sued the police association, the law firm and Lanzillo.
"[The police association] retained [Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir] to conduct ‘candidate research,’ including surveillance on Costa Mesa City Council members, in the months leading up to the November 2012 election,” the district attorney’s announcement said.
“Candidate research” was understood to mean digging up dirt, prosecutor Robert Mestman said.
The association’s lawyer, Paul Meyer, said the union’s relationship with the law firm was aboveboard.
“The association had the Lackie firm on retainer for years for general legal work and administrative representation for its members,” he said in a statement. “The law firm was quickly terminated when the controversy arose.”
However, in the run-up to the election, the association tripled the firm’s retainer from $500 to $1,500 a month, according to the district attorney’s office.
Meyer did not respond to questions about what the term “candidate research” meant and if the union specifically requested it.
Mestman declined to say whether he anticipates more arrests or charges in the case but said there’s no evidence so far that the police association knew about the GPS tracking, DUI call or any other illegal conduct beforehand.
“The investigation is still ongoing, and we filed charges we thought were appropriate at this time,” he said.
Members of the police association have cooperated with the nearly two-year investigation, which included convening a grand jury.
“Certain members of the union testified before the grand jury,” Mestman said. “They were given immunity.”
Lanzillo and Impola also are accused of illegally using a GPS device to track an unidentified lawyer who competed with Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, according to prosecutors.
Both men face an additional charge of conspiracy to commit a crime of unlawful use of an electronic tracking device stemming from that alleged incident in summer 2012, according to the district attorney’s announcement.
By 2012, Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir had a reputation for aggressively representing police associations across Southern California.
The firm’s website included a playbook that outlined tactics like public ridicule and work stoppages to gain the upper hand in contract negotiations.
“Focus on a city manager, councilperson, mayor or police chief and keep the pressure up until that person assures you his loyalty and then move on to the next victim,” the site said.
The firm is now defunct after allegations of billing improprieties and a law enforcement raid on its Upland offices last year.
Saku Ethir, a former partner, did not return a voicemail Thursday.
Lanzillo and Impola could each face up to four years and four months in jail and lose their private investigators’ licenses if convicted of all charges.
Both were arrested in Riverside County, according to prosecutors. Lanzillo is being held at Riverside County Jail with bail set at $25,000. Impola was released after posting bail.
Lanzillo and Impola both have checkered histories as former Riverside police detectives.
In 2009, Impola was accused of breaking into his estranged wife’s apartment and beating the man who was with her, but most of the charges were dismissed when he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor burglary.
The Riverside Police Department fired Lanzillo in 2010, although he alleged he was let go as retribution for his involvement with the local union.
At the time, Riverside Police Chief Sergio Diaz told the Riverside Press-Enterprise that Lanzillo was fired “because he did some really bad things.”
The Daily Pilot could not reach Lanzillo, Impola or their legal counsel.
It remains to be seen what will happen to Righeimer and Mensinger’s civil lawsuit.
The litigation is waiting to be heard after the union appealed a lower court ruling that there was enough evidence to go to trial.
But on Thursday, John Manly, an attorney representing Righeimer and Mensinger in the civil action, called the criminal charges a vindication.
“No elected official should fear a police union’s surrogates will victimize their family because they don’t vote for the union’s position,” he said. “Our clients simply want those who committed criminal acts against them to be identified and brought to justice. We will continue to go wherever the evidence leads us to fully identify those involved in this conspiracy and hold them accountable.”
Manly and his firm deposed Lanzillo as part of the suit in March. Lanzillo asserted his 5th Amendment protection against self incrimination more than 200 times during that questioning.
Other evidence-gathering in the lawsuit has been on hold because of a motion filed by the police association, which contends the lawsuit was filed simply as political retribution.
The crux of the union’s argument is Lanzillo and the law firm acted on their own accord.
“The D.A.'s action further demonstrates that the CMPA did not instruct, direct or encourage any alleged illegal acts by independent private investigators hired by the Lackie firm,” said Sy Everett, attorney for the police association.
Mensinger, who this month was chosen mayor by his council colleagues, said Thursday that he’s “disappointed that the Costa Mesa police union, according to the district attorney, retained [Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir] to conduct surveillance on Costa Mesa council members in the months leading up to the November 2012 election.”
Although Impola was not named in Mensinger and Righeimer’s civil lawsuit, Mensinger said: “I’m encouraged that the district attorney has found additional parties to the illegal acts. I’m sure the district attorney has a wider net to cast.”
Many of Righeimer and Mensinger’s political adversaries repeatedly have called on the councilmen to drop their case against the police union on grounds that the lawsuit severely harms rank-and-file officers’ morale.
One of those adversaries, Robin Leffler, president of activist group Costa Mesans for Responsible Government, said Thursday that “from the beginning, I want the truth to come out, and I think most people do too, whichever side that falls on.”
“You don’t want to hide the truth,” she said.
She repeated her concerns that the councilmen’s lawsuit has negatively affected the Police Department, which in recent years has experienced staffing shortages and other cuts. Many departing officers have cited a contentious political environment as a reason for leaving, according to a city report this year.
“It would do a lot for morale if that lawsuit went away,” Leffler said. “It would do a lot if they didn’t have this umbrella of intimidation.”
Righeimer, who wasn’t immediately available for comment Thursday, has had a tense relationship with city police.
In 2010, the police association campaigned against Righeimer, who won a seat on the council. Righeimer’s hard stances on pensions and other matters have clashed with organized labor’s interests.
During the 2010 council campaign, the union bought the rights to Righeimer.com and used the website to publicize Righeimer’s history of lawsuits and liens from the 1990s. The site was advertised on a billboard trailer driven around town.
The police association currently is negotiating with the council over its employment contract, which expired in June. Because of their lawsuit against the union, Mensinger and Righeimer have recused themselves from the closed-door talks.
Staff writer Bradley Zint contributed to this report.