Investigator takes the 5th in Righeimer lawsuit

A man accused in a lawsuit of filing a false drunk-driving report against Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer asserted his 5th Amendment right not to testify throughout a three-hour deposition on Thursday, attorneys said.

Private investigator Chris Lanzillo invoked the constitutional protection against self-incrimination more than 200 times, said attorney John Manly, who represents Righeimer and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger in the civil action filed against Lanzillo; the law firm that employed him, Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir; and the Costa Mesa Police Assn.

"Mr. Lanzillo was given the opportunity to explain his actions, the [police union's] actions and Lackie Dammeier's actions, and at every opportunity, he was instructed by his lawyers to and did take the 5th Amendment," said Manly. "It is very disturbing when any organization associated with law enforcement refuses to answer questions under oath on the grounds that the answers may incriminate them."

Declining to testify in the civil case should not be taken as an admission of guilt, according to Lanzillo's counsel.

"The 5th Amendment is available to both the innocent and the guilty," said attorney Jerry Abeles. "And no adverse conclusion can be drawn from the assertion of the privilege."

But an attorney for the councilmen, Vince Finaldi, said Lanzillo's refusal to speak, except to provide basic information such as his name, is "pretty interesting" and shows that Lanzillo has "potentially criminal exposure."

Lanzillo was subject to questioning at the Irvine law offices of Manly, Stewart and Finaldi. A judge earlier this month allowed Lanzillo, a former Riverside police detective, to be deposed.

The police union's attorney, Sy Everett, was also present.

"My take-away from the deposition is that the plaintiffs have no evidence to support their case against the Costa Mesa Police Assn.," he said. "We will continue to litigate this case in the courtroom and await the judge's decision on the anti-SLAPP motion."

The defense's anti-SLAPP motions, or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, allege that the councilmen's lawsuit is stifling their right to free speech. They argue that what the councilmen consider harassment is protected political speech.

Finaldi said Lanzillo's deposition shows that the defense's arguments in this case — including that his 911 call was protected speech and the law firm's so-called "playbook" tactics were protected as well — are "nothing but a bunch of hot air."

If the other side is "standing in court saying this lawsuit is bogus and [they] were addressing their 1st Amendment rights, that's incongruent with [Lanzillo] exercising his right to the 5th Amendment," Finaldi said.

According to the councilmen's complaint, Lanzillo followed Righeimer home from Councilman Gary Monahan's bar in August 2012 and called 911 to report Righeimer for drunk driving. A responding officer determined that Righeimer, who had only had Diet Coke that evening, was not drunk.

Righeimer later called the incident "a setup." The police union fired Lackie, Dammeier soon after the DUI report and has denied any prior knowledge of it.

Mensinger has also alleged that a GPS device was placed on his car during the election season, a piece of information he said he got from the Orange County district attorney's office.

Abeles also claimed partial victory earlier this month, saying Judge Gail A. Andler's decision to sustain a demurrer motion "speaks for itself." The motion, if successful, could dismiss the case — or some of the respondents.

The demurrer stated that Andler agreed to a legal objection that the councilmen's counsel has been unable to show the "crucial" connection between the Costa Mesa Police Assn. on one hand, and Lackie, Dammeier and Lanzillo on the other.

"By sustaining the demurrer, Judge Andler has indicated very strongly that the plaintiffs cannot state a claim," Abeles told the Daily Pilot at the time. "They can't even state facts out of the starting gate to even be able to put on a case."

Daily Pilot Editor John Canalis contributed to this report.

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