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Investigator says he set up Costa Mesa councilmen sting operation

Riverside County private eye says he was hired to gather dirt on two Costa Mesa councilmen seeking re-election and sent a woman into a bar to flirt with one of them.

November 13, 2012|By Lauren Williams and Jill Cowan, Los Angeles Times

In the run-up to election day, a Riverside County private investigator said he was hired to gather dirt on two Costa Mesa councilmen seeking re-election, and sent a woman into a local sports bar to flirt with one of the elected leaders with the hope of catching him behaving inappropriately.

The alleged setup came the same August night that the investigator called police to alert them that another councilman appeared to be driving under the influence. A subsequent field sobriety test revealed that Councilman Jim Righeimer was sober.

Chris Lanzillo, a Menifee private investigator and former police officer, said in an interview that his effort to catch the council members doing something improper was legal and he declined to reveal who had hired him for the job.

In the past he has worked for Lackie, Dammeier & McGill, an Upland law firm that works with more than 100 law enforcement agencies in California and bills itself as "former cops defending current ones."

The Orange County district attorney's office is now investigating the case, which has thrust Costa Mesa's protracted city-union battle back into the spotlight. It has also raised scrutiny of a law firm with vast influence in the state and a reputation for aggressive attacks against city halls.

Lackie, Dammeier & McGill represented police in Costa Mesa for years, but was let go after the DUI call. The Los Angeles Police Protective League and others have criticized the firm's tactics.

Righeimer, who said he was drinking only Diet Cokes that night at the sports bar, has contended he was set up by organized labor because of his efforts to reduce what he deems overly generous city employee compensation and retirement packages. Labor representatives have denied any advance knowledge of, or responsibility for, Lanzillo's actions.

The Orange County Register first reported that the private investigator confided that a woman had been sent into the bar to flirt with Councilman Gary Monahan, who is married and owns the tavern.

The investigator said he had been hired to tail Monahan and Councilman Steve Mensinger, who were running for re-election at the time.

Lanzillo said the woman, whom he said was not paid for her efforts, sat at a table in Skosh Monahan's Steakhouse & Irish Pub, smiled at Monahan and then interacted with him as he poured whiskey.

Because of the ongoing investigation, Monahan said he has been asked by prosecutors not to comment on the case.

"I've pretty much been advised by the D.A. not to say anything, not to get involved," Monahan said in a phone message left for a reporter. "It is what it is, and the D.A. is investigating what happened on that particular day."

Righeimer said he was at the councilman's bar that night and that the woman can be seen on surveillance video entering the tavern behind him. That video has been seized by district attorney's investigators.

Righeimer said he didn't remember any of Monahan's interactions with the woman.

"To say I saw her would actually be a stretch," he said. "Gary's is an open restaurant. She was at this table right next to the bar. [Monahan] was going back and forth, his daughter got us Diet Cokes."

Righeimer condemned Lanzillo's actions, alleging that such tactics are designed to "destroy people's lives and families."

The head of the police union, Jason Chamness, could not be reached for comment but in the past has said his organization did not retain Lanzillo and had no prior awareness of the alleged DUI setup.

The law firm, in a statement, described Lanzillo as "one of many PIs we have used" and said that he was not employed or authorized to conduct surveillance on Righeimer.

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