An Orange County Superior Court judge ruled this week that a private investigator accused of harassing Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer by falsely reporting him for drunk driving in 2012 can be deposed under oath.
Judge Gail A. Andler ruled Wednesday that former Riverside police Det. Christopher Lanzillo will be subject to depositions within about two weeks.
Lanzillo is one of several defendants being sued by Righeimer, his wife, Lene, and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger in a civil-action lawsuit that alleges harassment and intimidation for political gain.
The councilmen have also sued Costa Mesa’s police union and its former law firm, Upland-based Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, which employed Lanzillo.
One of the councilmen’s attorneys, Vince Finaldi, called Wednesday’s development “great news.”
“It’s definitely a positive sign,” Finaldi said. “I don’t know how someone could see it any other way ... we’ll definitely be asking [Lanzillo] relevant questions about the allegations in the complaint.”
But the defense also cited positive developments in the case.
On Wednesday, Andler sustained a demurrer motion — meaning she agreed with a legal objection — by saying that the councilmen have not been able to sufficiently allege the “crucial” connection between the police union on one hand, and Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir and Lanzillo on the other.
“By sustaining the demurrer, Judge Andler has indicated very strongly that the plaintiffs cannot state a claim,” said Jerry Abeles, who is representing Lanzillo and Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir. “They can’t even state facts out of the starting gate to even be able to put on a case.”
If the demurrer is ultimately granted, the judge could throw out the councilmen’s complaint entirely, he said.
Andler has pointed out that there are “fatal legal flaws” with the claims, he added. She identified several hurdles for them, Abeles said, and various reasons why it “may be difficult to clear those hurdles.”
He declined to comment on Andler’s decision to open depositions for Lanzillo.
“The Costa Mesa Police Assn. is very pleased with the court’s ruling,” added Sy Everett, the association’s attorney. “We will continue to litigate this matter in court, and will wait for the court’s ruling on the anti-SLAPP motion.”
The depositions are one aspect of the councilmen’s effort in finding additional evidence, though they have been stifled from doing so because of a pair of anti-SLAPP motions, or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.
In defense of those motions, the defendants have said Righeimer and Mensinger’s lawsuit is stifling their clients’ 1st Amendment rights to free speech, such as campaigning against Righeimer using a billboard, congregating at City Hall and calling 911.
Furthermore, they argued last month, that while Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir’s so-called “playbook” might have been distasteful, it did not condone any illegal activity and is a protected form of speech. The online guide, since taken down, referred to politicians or city managers as “victims” of aggressive negotiation tactics.
Lanzillo is accused of following Righeimer in August 2012 and falsely reporting to authorities that the politician was drunk driving home from a bar owned by Councilman Gary Monahan. That evening, Righeimer passed a field sobriety test at his Mesa Verde house.
He later called the incident “a setup.”
“There’s no reason for Lanzillo, who lives all the way out in the desert, to go out of his way to track these council members,” Finaldi said. “Why would he have a personal interest in doing that?”
Righeimer and Mensinger’s lawsuit had requested several other depositions. Some have been denied, including requests to question CMPD Officer Kha Bao — who conducted Righeimer’s field sobriety test — and former police union President Jason Chamness.
As it relates to the police union, those requests are “meritless,” Everett said.
Andler called the councilmen’s request “broad and substantial” and wrote that they “have failed to establish good cause for such a broad request, which includes a request for unspecified written discovery.”
Andler also wrote that all the parties are encouraged to informally exchange documents and information with each other “in an effort to resolve their differences.”
Finaldi said the other side hasn’t made that happen yet.
“You don’t see [the police union] pounding down my door to give me information about how they’re not connected with Lackie Dammeier,” he said. “They’re doing everything they can to do to get this out of court.”
Everett countered that notion, saying, “The police association has repeatedly reached out to plaintiffs’ council to discuss the lawsuit, and plaintiffs’ council has rejected our request.”
He also maintained the union’s separation from Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir and Lanzillo in the complaint
The lawsuit also alleges that a GPS tracking device was placed under Mensinger’s truck during the 2012 election season. It was used to track his movements, the complaint alleges.
The police union fired the law firm soon after the Lanzillo incident and has denied any prior knowledge of its alleged tactics and the GPS device.