Costa Mesa City Councilman Jim Righeimer, his wife, Lene, and former council member Steve Mensinger will receive $607,500 to settle a civil lawsuit they filed in 2013 alleging that the Costa Mesa Police Assn. and a law firm that once represented the union had harassed and intimidated them for political gain, according to an agreement announced Monday.
The settlement seemingly closes one of the more bizarre chapters in Costa Mesa’s political history — one in which two private investigators were accused of illegally tracking Mensinger with a GPS device and making a fake DUI report against Righeimer in the lead-up to the city’s heated 2012 City Council election.
“Sometimes in life it’s necessary to take a stand against bullies who engage in fraud and misconduct,” Righeimer said in a statement Monday. “It’s especially sad when it is a few bad apples in law enforcement [that] cast a bad light on all the great hard-working men and women in our police department.”
Mensinger said in a statement that the agreement “confirms that we have achieved our objectives of accountability, transparency and compensation. Instead of continuing the litigation, at the expense of our families and the public, we have made the decision to put this saga behind us so we can all get back to business.”
The vast majority of the settlement will come from the now-defunct law firm Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, which formerly represented the police union; Christopher Joseph Lanzillo, an investigator the firm hired; and Lanzillo’s business, Big Giants Investigations, “and/or their insurers,” according to the settlement.
Though the agreement states that $7,500 will come from the police association, a news release from the union states the law firm “will be paying all fines in the settlement,” citing a separate settlement agreement reached with the law firm in June for that amount.
“This 6-year old chapter is over right where it started,” CMPA President Josh Kuo said in a statement. “It was fitting to transfer the $7,500 from LDME to the plaintiffs, as we had no intention of paying the Mensinger and Righeimer parties anything out of our pocket.”
“We are grateful for the many ways Costa Mesans showed their support for us in this long, hard journey,” Kuo added.
Authorities have said two private investigators — Lanzillo and Scott Alan Impola — were working for the law firm and trying to dig up dirt on Mensinger, Righeimer and then-council member Gary Monahan, who were feuding with the police union in the months leading to the 2012 election.
According to prosecutors and testimony, Lanzillo tailed Righeimer from Monahan’s Costa Mesa bar and restaurant on Aug. 22, 2012, and called 911 to report that Righeimer was swerving in and out of lanes as he drove.
Righeimer later took and passed a field sobriety test administered by a Costa Mesa police officer at his Mesa Verde home.
Impola — who prosecutors said was surveilling Monahan that night — and Lanzillo also were accused of using a GPS device to illegally track Mensinger.
Lanzillo pleaded guilty in September 2016 to felony counts 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 to an agency. He was later sentenced to 364 days in county jail and three years’ formal probation.
Impola died of natural causes in July 2017. He had pleaded not guilty to all charges and was free on bond at the time of his death.
Mensinger and the Righeimers filed their civil lawsuit in August 2013, alleging the police union, the law firm and Lanzillo had inflicted emotional distress and violated their civil rights.
The police association has consistently maintained it had no previous knowledge of any wrongdoing.
“This lawsuit should never have been filed against the police association,” Sy Everett, an attorney representing the union, said in a statement. “The CMPA did not have knowledge of the private investigator and did not direct or influence the private investigator. When the CMPA learned of the incident, the CMPA immediately fired the law firm and worked closely with the city and district attorney’s office to bring justice to the council members in the criminal matter. An internal investigation cleared all CMPA members of any wrongdoing. However, the lawsuit took an enormous toll on the officers and Costa Mesa in more ways than one.”
However, Vince Finaldi, an attorney who represented Mensinger and the Righeimers, said, “The police association and law firm are not paying over a half-million dollars because they didn’t do anything wrong.”
“The settlement is their acknowledgement of the wrongfulness of their conduct toward my clients,” Finaldi said in a statement. “Now the city of Costa Mesa can get back to business, and hopefully its citizens demand an internal investigation as to why this occurred in the first place, allowing it to root out the bad actors and take steps to prevent it from occurring in the future.”