CMPOA: Lawsuit attempts to muzzle critics of City Council

Costa Mesa’s police association responded this month to a lawsuit filed by two councilmen alleging the union, its former law firm and a private investigator conspired to harass and intimidate them for political gain.

Lawyers for the Costa Mesa Police Officers’ Assn., called Mayor Jim Righeimer and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger’s accusations “an insult” and an attempt to muzzle critics of Costa Mesa’s City Council majority led by Righeimer, according to copies of Orange County Superior Court filings reviewed by the Pilot.

Righeimer, Mensinger and Righeimer’s wife, Lene, sued the CMPOA, private investigator Chris Lanzillo and the Upland-based law firm Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir in August, asking for unspecified damages.

The complaint alleges the three defendants used tactics laid out in a playbook posted online by Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir to systematically intimidate and coerce the councilmen for political gain.

An incident in August 2012, when Lanzillo followed Righeimer home and called 911 to say the mayor was potentially drunk, illustrates these tactics, according to the complaint.

Costa Mesa police officer Kha Bao responded to Righeimer’s home and administered a sobriety test, determining the mayor was not impaired.

The CMPOA, law firm and Lanzillo have asked a judge to strike the councilmen’s suit, arguing it is a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or SLAPP, intended to stifle 1st Amendment rights.

Their filings contend that billboards attacking Righeimer, officers allegedly encouraging citizens to ask for more police, surveillance by Lanzillo and other tactics outlined by the playbook or alleged in the lawsuit are all protected by the right to criticize public officials.

“The fact that [plaintiffs] may not like the ‘playbook,’ or may find the strategies aggressive, does not render the strategies illegal or actionable,” CMPOA’s response stated.

A request in the lawsuit to bar the defendants from those practices in the future is an attempt to silence opposition, the filing argues.

“Plaintiffs’ last cause of action confirms the true intent behind the filing of their complaint — to intimidate [CMPOA] and others from voicing any disagreement with plaintiffs’ attempts to advance their political agenda.”

Righeimer campaigned in 2010 on a platform of public pension reform and cost reduction, something the police association vehemently opposed.

Vince Finaldi, the lawyer representing Mensinger and the Righeimers, called the anti-SLAPP motion a stall tactic.

The allegation has frozen discovery and prevented Finaldi’s law firm from conducting a scheduled deposition of Dieter Dammeier and others who hold information key to fleshing out the defendants’ actions, Finaldi said.

“If you really did nothing wrong, if you have nothing to hide, why not sit down and discuss it?” he said.

Finaldi said he believes Dammeier would have invoked the 5th Amendment during the deposition, exercising his right to avoid self-incrimination.

Although the Orange County District Attorney’s office has repeatedly declined to comment on whether there is a criminal investigation into Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir, authorities this month obtained search warrants for the firm’s offices and Dammeier’s home.

“I can guarantee you that when everything finally shakes out, there’s going to be a lot of criminal conduct,” Finaldi said.

In another defense, the CMPOA asserts that Mensinger, Righeimer and his wife were legally required to file a complaint for damages against the Costa Mesa Police Department or the city before suing the police union.

“Plaintiffs go to great lengths to assert that the lawsuit is not about or against the police officers in the City of Costa Mesa,” the response said. "... Yet despite this, the complaint repeatedly refers to acts by police officers in the City of Costa Mesa. For example, the mere presence of Officer Bao at Righeimer’s home forms the basis of Righeimer’s assault complaint.”

The defendants also asked the judge to grant a demurrer, dismissing the lawsuit on the grounds that even if the allegations are true, they do not rise to the level of civil action.

A judge will consider that motion Nov. 18.

Even without the opportunity to depose Dammeier and others, Finaldi argues that the plaintiff’s motions will not work against some parts of the lawsuit, including an allegation that Lanzillo assaulted Righeimer’s wife by driving his car toward Lene before swerving around her.

“The 1st Amendment might protect 1st Amendment speech.” Finaldi said. “One thing it does not protect is conduct. And … it does not protect criminal activity.”