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O.C. case brings scrutiny of union law firm's tactics

Upland lawyers are known for aggressive attacks on city halls on behalf of police.

September 16, 2012|Christopher Goffard
  • Jim Righeimer believes he was being set up when a private eye made a 911 call and said he'd seen Righeimer stumbling out of Skosh Monahan's pub in Costa Mesa and swerving his car between lanes. Righeimer passed a sobriety test and produced a receipt for the two Diet Cokes he'd bought at the pub.
Jim Righeimer believes he was being set up when a private eye made a 911 call… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

One after another, people stepped before the Costa Mesa City Council to decry the blight and lawlessness on tiny Ford Road -- prostitutes, thieves, home invaders. What the city needs, they pleaded, is more cops.

Councilman Jim Righeimer, a GOP activist and an architect of the city's controversial plan to radically slash its workforce, perceived the parade of concerned citizens as the pawns of a police union and its law firm, with its statewide reputation for bare-knuckle tactics.

"This City Council is being held hostage by the police union," Righeimer railed from his seat at the Aug. 21 meeting. "This council will not be shaken down."

The next afternoon, Righeimer assembled a team of city officials to tour Ford Road and recommend improvements. Afterward, he stopped at a Newport Boulevard pub, Skosh Monahan's, then climbed into his GMC Yukon and drove home.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, September 17, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Law firm tactics: An article in the Sept. 16 Section A about negotiating tactics used by the law firm Lackie, Dammeier and McGill on behalf of police unions said the Los Angeles Police Protective League had dropped the firm. The league recently denounced the firm's tactics, but had not been a client.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 23, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Law firm tactics: An article in the Sept. 16 Section A about negotiating tactics used by the law firm Lackie, Dammeier and McGill on behalf of police unions said that the Los Angeles Police Protective League had dropped the firm. The league recently denounced the firm's tactics but had not been a client.

Minutes later, a policeman arrived at his door to ask if he'd been drinking. Someone had called 911 to say Righeimer had stumbled out of the pub and swerved his car between lanes.

Righeimer passed the field sobriety test, furnished a $6.47 receipt for two Diet Cokes and wasted no time seizing the political moment. He was being set up, he announced at a press conference.

The 911 caller, it emerged, was a private investigator who worked for the police union's Upland-based law firm, Lackie, Dammeier & McGill. The firm insists it did not send the investigator to follow Righeimer, and the police union denies involvement.

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.

In the wake of the Righeimer incident, several unions -- including the Costa Mesa Police Officers' Assn. and the Los Angeles Police Protective League -- have dropped the firm.

The firm advertises itself as "former cops defending current ones," and its website touts a long list of what it portrays as triumphant contract negotiations with cities on behalf of police-union clients. It has an advertised clientele of more than 120 public safety unions in the state.

Until recently, the website featured a detailed list of "tools" that police associations can employ to push decision-makers "into giving in to your position."

"The association should be like a quiet giant in the position of, 'Do as I ask and don't piss me off,' " the website read.

"Storm city council," the site suggested, to chastise uncooperative elected leaders. Campaign against them. Send attack mailers. Picket. Take out newspaper ads. Launch websites denouncing the city. Use "every high profile crime" to argue that more cops could have prevented it. Pay for billboards.

"Nothing seems to get more attention than a billboard entering the city limits which reads that crime is up and the City could care less about your safety," the site said.

The site suggested using "work slowdown" as a tactic, such as "asking for a backup unit on most calls," as well as "blue flu," a staged sick-out by police officers.

The site also touted the effectiveness of tightly focused attacks.

"Focus on a city manager, councilperson, mayor or police chief and keep the pressure up until that person assures you his loyalty and then move on to the next victim," the site read.

The firm has since removed this section, saying it was "historical and educational material" misread as tactical advice.

However, critics of Lackie, Dammeier & McGill say the content represented an accurate description of its tactics.

"If you look at their playbook, we have been the victim of almost all of it," said Montclair City Manager Edward Starr, whose city is in its second year of contract negotiations with police. The city, he said, has spent more than $600,000 defending itself against the law firm.

Rob Pipersky, 59, a Montclair resident and longtime police officer there, said his union is in the grip of Dieter Dammeier and his firm: "They drink the Kool-Aid. They think this guy is the best guy in the world."

At a meeting earlier this year, Pipersky said, his union discussed launching a recall of city leaders who had resisted union demands.

"I ended up calling them carpetbaggers," Pipersky said. "I said, 'You're a bunch of outsiders coming into my town to overthrow my council and put your people in to give you what you want.' "

He said his union has since barred him from meetings.

Attorney Scott Gross- berg said he was hired to defend the city of San Gabriel against what he describes as frivolous lawsuits filed by Dammeier.

In one case last year, Grossberg said, the firm filed a tort claim demanding parking fees its clients incurred during a failed mediation session. It was for $40.

"He doesn't write a letter," Grossberg said. "This is what he does. It's knee-jerk, over-the-top bullying. 'If you don't do things my way, you'll see me in court.' "

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