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Investigators raid offices of police unions' former law firm

The Orange County district attorney is investigating the firm that allegedly targeted civic leaders who were seeking to alter police pensions.

October 16, 2013|By Paloma Esquivel and Joseph Serna

Orange County district attorney's investigators have raided the offices of an Upland law firm accused of bullying civic leaders across Southern California in its aggressive representation of police and their unions.

The search of Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir comes after the firm announced last month that it would be dissolving following a series of scandals and a lawsuit filed by Costa Mesa city leaders who alleged that the firm was harassing them for political gain.

The firm has represented dozens of police unions in Southern California and has a reputation for its bare-fisted tactics and attacks on city hall.

Since last year, prosecutors have examined accusations that a private investigator who had worked with the firm followed Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer from a local bar and called 911 to say the then-councilman was possibly driving drunk.

At the time, the firm was employed by the Costa Mesa Police Officers' Assn. and Righeimer was an advocate of reexamining police pension and benefits to lower city expenses. After the call, a police officer came to his door and asked Righeimer to take a sobriety test, which he passed. Righeimer later produced a receipt from the bar showing he'd bought only a soda at the tavern.

A Costa Mesa Police Assn. official, who asked not to be identified because he is not permitted to speak publicly about the investigation, told The Times that union board members met with Orange County district attorney's investigators earlier this year about the incident in connection with a grand jury investigation. The official said the union is cooperating with the investigation.

Since the accusations came to light, city leaders elsewhere have accused the firm of bullying them or employing aggressive tactics, some of which were outlined on the firm's website until they were taken down last year. The tactics included work stoppages, so-called blue flu strikes, storming City Council meetings, holding officials up for public ridicule and targeting individuals.

"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 advised.

"GardenGroveSucks.com was a big hit," the firm's so-called playbook also noted in describing how city leaders could be shamed on a website.

Last week, investigators obtained a search warrant for the Upland law offices and for a Rancho Cucamonga home owned by a family trust of Dieter Dammeier, one of the firm's founders.

In September 2012, investigators obtained a search warrant for the Sun City home of Chris Lanzillo, the private investigator who allegedly followed Righeimer, according to court records.

News of the raid on the firm was first reported by the San Bernardino County Sentinel, which said investigators entered the law offices midmorning Thursday and left with boxes of documents.

Dale Nowicki, who worked with Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir until last year, told The Times that he has been contacted by district attorney's investigators who were asking about the Righeimer incident but also wanted to know whether similar incidents had happened while he was at the firm.

"I think they were trying to find out if there was any kind of pattern or practice," Nowicki said.

Nowicki left the firm before the incident occurred and said he told investigators he did not have any insight into the incident.

A former employee of the law firm who requested that he not be named out of fear of political retribution said he was also questioned by Orange County prosecutors.

"The questions focused on Lanzillo in the firm. The investigator asked if I knew of any other cases about the political stuff and I didn't," the employee said.

In September, the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California's Legal Defense Fund wrote to its members accusing Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir of committing "serious acts of misconduct regarding their billing practices." Among the accusations, the letter stated that partner Saku Ethir admitted to engaging in "not only impermissible double billing, but also engaging in acts of 'triple billing.'"

Dammeier, the law firm partner, declined to comment on the investigation or the recent search when reached by phone. Ethir did not return a call requesting comment.

Costa Mesa city officials were interviewed in the days after the incident, said Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger and Councilman Gary Monahan. The Costa Mesa police union cut ties to the law firm after the incident.

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

joseph.serna@latimes.com

Times Community News writer Jeremiah Dobruck contributed to this report.

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