Costa Mesa CEO, police chief apologize to councilmen

Costa Mesa Mayor Steve Mensinger in 2012. Mensinger, then a councilman, was illegally tracked by two private investigators in 2012, according to Orange County prosecutors.
(SCOTT SMELTZER / Daily Pilot)

Costa Mesa city CEO Tom Hatch and acting Police Chief Rob Sharpnack issued an apology Monday to three councilmen who prosecutors allege were surveilled in 2012 by investigators working for a law firm retained by the city’s police union.

Last week, authorities arrested the two private investigators, who allegedly tried to gather damaging information on council members Jim Righeimer, Steve Mensinger and Gary Monahan during the general election season.

“We find this deeply concerning,” the statement read, “and will work vigorously to obtain and evaluate all information about the conduct of any involved Costa Mesa police officers, whether on or off duty, and to do so in a thorough and unbiased manner.”

If warranted and in coordination with the district attorney’s criminal investigation, city officials said they will conduct their own internal investigation by an independent party “to provide all concerned with confidence in the completeness, fairness and impartiality of that process. Strong and appropriate action will be taken if misconduct has occurred.”

The statement concluded that “we are sorry that Mayor Steve Mensinger, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer and Councilmember Gary Monahan and their families were put in this unacceptable situation.”

The Orange County district attorney’s office alleges that during the 2012 general election, the Costa Mesa Police Assn. paid the Upland-based law firm Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir to dig up political dirt, which included hiring private investigators to surveil the councilmen, who had been at odds with public employees over retirement benefits.

No member of the Costa Mesa Police Assn. is accused of anything criminal in the district attorney’s case. The CMPA has repeatedly denied any prior knowledge of any illegal surveillance tactics, and fired Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir soon after the councilmen went public with certain allegations. The law firm has since been dissolved.

The prosecutors contend that the private investigators placed a GPS device on Mensinger’s truck and called in a false DUI report against Righeimer when he was leaving Monahan’s bar one evening that August.

The investigators accused of conducting the illegal surveillance, Christopher Joseph Lanzillo and Scott Alan Impola, each face one felony count 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.

Prosecutors say there is no evidence that the police union knew of any illegal activity beforehand.

“I’m gratified that our acting police chief and the CEO have publicly stepped up and done what’s right,” Mensinger said in response to the announcement Monday. “In the end, the public just wants the facts, and we want to remove this dark cloud from over our city’s Police Department. This is the first step.”

Righeimer, his wife, Lene, and Mensinger filed a separate civil-action lawsuit against the CMPA, the law firm and Lanzillo last year. They alleged that the parties conspired against them for purposes of political extortion.

The case is ongoing.

Councilwoman Sandy Genis said what Lanzillo and Impola are accused of is “totally inappropriate,” but that the councilmen’s lawsuit against the police union is not “conducive for a healthy relationship with our personnel.” She also warned against presupposing guilt of the accused.