P.I. sentenced to a year in jail in Costa Mesa spying and false DUI case

From left, attorney Alex Cunny, former Costa Mesa Mayor Steve Mensinger, Costa Mesa Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer and Lene Righeimer speak to media Friday in Santa Ana's Orange County Superior Court after the sentencing of a former Riverside police detective convicted of illegally tracking the councilmen in 2012.

From left, attorney Alex Cunny, former Costa Mesa Mayor Steve Mensinger, Costa Mesa Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer and Lene Righeimer speak to media Friday in Santa Ana’s Orange County Superior Court after the sentencing of a former Riverside police detective convicted of illegally tracking the councilmen in 2012.

(Bradley Zint / Daily PIlot)

Orange County Superior Court Judge W. Michael Hayes sensed distress as Jim Righeimer left his seat for the speaker’s podium Friday morning in Hayes’ Santa Ana courtroom.

“You seem a little nervous,” Hayes told him. “Relax.”

Righeimer, a member of Costa Mesa’s City Council since 2010, took a moment to collect himself before calmly stating how Christopher Joseph Lanzillo, a private investigator and former Riverside police detective, has affected his family in the years since the evening of Aug. 22, 2012.

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Lanzillo had pleaded guilty in September to allegations that he illegally used an electronic tracking device and a false drunk-driving report against Costa Mesa council members.

And on Friday, Hayes sentenced Lanzillo to 364 days in county jail and three years’ formal probation.

But not before Righeimer had a chance to tell his story.

On that summer evening five years ago, Lanzillo was working for the Costa Mesa Police Assn.’s law firm. That night, prosecutors said, he followed Righeimer after he left a bar and restaurant owned by then-Councilman Gary Monahan. During the drive, prosecutors said, Lanzillo called 911, falsely reporting that Righeimer was driving erratically and could be intoxicated.

Soon afterward, as Righeimer’s children watched from their Mesa Verde home, Righeimer, who at the time was mayor pro tem, took a field sobriety test administered by a Costa Mesa police officer. He easily passed. Righeimer later said he was only drinking Diet Coke that evening.

In addition to the 911 call about Righeimer, prosecutors said Lanzillo placed a GPS device on then-Councilman Steve Mensinger’s vehicle, using it to illegally track his whereabouts.

In September, Lanzillo pleaded guilty to two felony counts of conspiracy to commit a crime of unlawful use of an electronic tracking device, one felony count of false imprisonment by deceit and one felony count of conspiracy to commit a crime of falsely reporting a crime to an agency, according to the Orange County district attorney’s office.

The 47-year-old Lake Arrowhead resident has been free on bail and is scheduled to turn himself in later this month to begin his sentence.

Righeimer testified in his victim impact statement Friday that in the years since the episode first became public, he and his family have felt “humiliated.”

In 2012, Lanzillo was employed by Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, a since-dissolved Upland-based law firm retained by many police groups. It had a reputation for aggressive tactics and a “playbook” reference guide on how to intimidate politicians and city managers.

According to prosecutors, Lanzillo was trying to find compromising information about Righeimer, Mensinger and Monahan for use in the campaign for that fall’s council election.

At the time, the councilmen were in the midst of an employment contract dispute with the Costa Mesa Police Assn. over pensions and other benefits, which the three have long contended are financially burdensome and unsustainable.

After Righeimer’s account of the 911 call became public, the police association fired the law firm. The union has since said it had no prior knowledge of Lanzillo’s tactics.

Righeimer, referring to his family as “victims,” called the episode something akin to “what happens in Third World countries, that there’s a corruption inside your police department, and Mr. Lanzillo is part of that corruption.”

Throughout the proceedings Friday, Lanzillo, dressed in a suit and tie, sat nearly immobile with his head slightly tilted up. He did not speak or turn around to face Righeimer and Mensinger, who also gave a victim impact statement.

For about 30 minutes before the sentencing, Lanzillo sat by himself in the courtroom, his eyes closed and his body still as others waiting nearby used their cellphones to pass the time.

Mensinger, who began serving on the council in 2011 but lost a bid for reelection in November, said Lanzillo entered his property several times to adjust the GPS device on his vehicle.

“The emotional and physical impact on my family has been etched,” Mensinger said. “We now live with a healthy fear of who to trust.”

Righeimer and Mensinger said they have been approached by “dozens of elected officials” who said similar tactics have been used against them.

“That’s probably the most disturbing part of this,” Mensinger said. The issue “strikes to the heart of the sanctity of our democracy. I really believe that we have to have trust and faith in our law enforcement professionals. Otherwise, it has consequences probably far beyond this case.”

Lanzillo’s attorney, Edward Robinson, said that while his client has admitted guilt, he should be credited for “who he is and what he has done” in his life.

Robinson said Lanzillo — a father of five, including an adopted 12-year-old who was born addicted to methamphetamine — had a “difficult upbringing” under alcoholic parents. He essentially “raised himself” before enlisting in the Marines, Robinson said.

“It shames him deeply to have stained the reputation of the United States Marine Corps,” Robinson said.

Lanzillo served in the Riverside Police Department “with distinction,” his attorney said.

“So when you look at his history, he has served his country. He has served his community and he has served the least among us,” Robinson added.

But Chris Duff, acting Orange County assistant district attorney, called Lanzillo’s actions “dirty politics coming into our county.” He disputed any assertion that Lanzillo’s actions were merely “aberrant behavior.”

“He was not some innocent dude not knowing what was going on,” Duff said.

He contended that Lanzillo used his police training “to go after these people. And he knew it was wrong. He knew what he was doing and he has sacrificed public trust and police officers’ reputation because of what he did — and he got paid to do it.”

Duff said such tactics will make Orange County’s politicians “scared to go to work, scared to be with their families, because they don’t know what’s happening or who’s following them. I find the behavior to be very offensive.”

Hayes acknowledged Lanzillo’s clean record before his guilty plea but said, “I feel here that this was a crime of the head, not the heart. It wasn’t a one-time mistake. This was planned, set out by the law firm to gain advantage in contract negotiations.”

Of such “hardball tactics,” he said, “We just can’t have that in Orange County.”

Private investigator Scott Alan Impola, 49, of Canyon Lake is facing the same charges as Lanzillo, prosecutors said. He has pleaded not guilty.

Mensinger, Righeimer and Righeimer’s wife, Lene, have filed a civil complaint in the matter against the union, the law firm and Lanzillo. That case is ongoing.

In a news conference following Lanzillo’s sentencing, Righeimer and Mensinger said they have long felt pressure by some in Costa Mesa, including fellow council members, to drop their lawsuit.

But they said they feel confident to press on with it and to continue to work toward learning more about what occurred within the police association at that time.

“We cannot have elected officials extorted for pay and compensation,” Mensinger said. “I’m adamant about that.”

Sy Everett, an attorney representing the Costa Mesa Police Assn. in the civil case, said Friday that the association “did not direct, influence or have any association with Mr. Lanzillo or any private investigator related to this matter.”

“We will continue to cooperate and assist with any criminal investigation,” he added.

Twitter: @BradleyZint