P.I. Sentenced to Year in Prison in Scheme to ‘Set Up’ Orange County Councilmen

A private detective who helped wage an illegal harassment campaign against three Costa Mesa councilmen was sentenced to a year in jail by an Orange County Superior Court Judge Friday.

Here’s what happened:

In 2012, the City of Costa Mesa was steeped in tense contract negotiations with the Costa Mesa Police Association, which was pushing for higher salaries for its officers. The police union hired a now defunct law firm known as Lackie, Dammeier, McGill and Ethir, and Lanzillo for oppo research on some of the city’s councilmembers, including Councilman Jim Righeimer and former mayor Steve Mensinger. What followed was something straight out of the pages of a movie script.

Private investigator Christopher Joseph Lanzillo, who was hired by the firm, illegally placed a tracker on Mensinger’s car in the hopes of catching him in a compromising situation. He and another PI, Scott Impola, followed Righeimer from a Costa Mesa bar and then called 911 to falsely report a DUI. As a result, Righeimer was arrested outside his home. The councilman later passed a field sobriety test and was able to prove he had only had a diet coke.

“Because myself, Councilman Gary Monahan and Steve Mensinger were not giving them our loyalty, our families were the next victims,” Righeimer said in court. “This is what happens in third-world countries.”

The Costa Mesa politicians aren’t alone. The law firm, which once represented over 130 police unions throughout the state, has been accused of similar bullying tactics by a number of other cities. The police union later cut ties with the firm, claiming it knew nothing of its illegal practices. The firm finally closed its doors in 2014 after it was accused of stealing.

Lanzillo’s day of reckoning came Friday, six months after he pleaded guilty to three felony counts in the case.

“I do know he was at a minimum a foot soldier in a firm that was using what I call hardball... and illegal tactics during contract negotiations, and we just can’t have that in Orange County,” Judge W. Michael Hayes said at the investigator’s sentencing.

Both Lanzillo and the other PI, Scott Impola, were former Riverside police officers. Lanzillo’s attorney cited that service as a cause for leniency, as he was seeking six months instead of a year for his client. But prosecutor Chris Duff argued that that made his actions even worse.

“He used his training, his skills that he learned as a police officer to go after these people,” Duff said. “This is dirty politics coming to our county.”

The targeted city officials don’t buy the police union’s claim of innocence. They believe the Costa Mesa Police Association was a willing participant in the firm’s illegal intimidation campaign. They have since filed a civil lawsuit against the organization.


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