Council rejects lawsuit request

The Costa Mesa City Council on Tuesday rejected a request that the city pay the costs of fighting a lawsuit brought by two councilmen against the police union, its former law firm and a private investigator.

The Costa Mesa Police Officers' Assn. had sought to use taxpayer money in its defense against the civil action filed in August by Mayor Jim Righeimer, his wife and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger.

The council vote was 3 to 0, City Attorney Tom Duarte said at the start of Tuesday's meeting. The vote was conducted out of the public's view, which is customary for legal matters. Righeimer and Mensinger, who are covering their costs related to the lawsuit, recused themselves from the vote.

The councilmen allege that the law firm — Upland-based Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir — placed a GPS device on Mensinger's truck during the 2012 election season as part of a conspiracy to harass, intimidate and try to dig up dirt for political gain.

The firm is also accused of hiring a private investigator, Chris Lanzillo who allegedly followed Righeimer home one night in August 2012 and reported him to police as a possible drunk driver. The responding officer conducted a sobriety test at Righeimer's home, which he passed as his family watched in fear, according to the suit. Righeimer later called the situation "a setup."

The Orange County district attorney's office and FBI are investigating the incident. Mensinger had said he learned of the existence of the GPS device through the district attorney's investigation.

In reference to the council's critics in the audience, Righeimer — who, at the advice of his attorney, has generally avoided public comment on his lawsuit — said he was "appalled by the silence by the people in this community who talk about law and order and how things should be."

"The silence is deafening, deafening at how bad it was," he added.

Righeimer scoffed at any notion that the alleged GPS planting was "just a little creepy."

"That's bizarre," he said. "What has this world come to?"

Councilwoman Wendy Leece called her vote on the lawsuit a "hard decision."

There's not much "wiggle room" within the law on this matter, she said, adding that "you cannot use public funds to defend an organization."

Leece called the vote "more of a protection for the city. The whole lawsuit will have to play itself out, and we'll see what happens."

Councilman Gary Monahan added, "In the public's interest, this [vote] should have been in public session."

The Costa Mesa Police Officers' Assn. cut its ties with Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir soon after the Lanzillo incident. The union has denied any involvement in or prior knowledge of Lanzillo's actions and the law firm's tactics.

Righeimer and Mensinger say in their lawsuit that they have no complaint against "the general rank-and-file police officers who diligently serve our communities in the face of grave danger, on a daily basis."

Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, known for its aggressive representation of police unions, was reportedly raided by prosecutors in October. In September, the 16-year-old firm told its clients that it would be "winding down and eventually close."

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