How Far Will Cop Unions Go to Halt Reform?

A look into the way some police unions across California intimidate political opponents into silence


The arrest this week of two ex-cop private investigators—charged with felonies related to their alleged attempt to set up a Costa Mesa city councilman for a false DUI — is about more than the disturbing tactics of two hired guns. It offers insight into the way some police unions across California intimidate political opponents into silence.

This ugly story starts in 2012. Councilmen Jim Righeimer, Stephen Mensinger, and Gary Monahan were loathed by the city's police union because of their efforts to reduce pension liabilities and outsource services. Costa Mesa had become Ground Zero in our state's battle over reform, drawing protests reminiscent of the fracas between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and unions at the capitol in Madison.

A political dispute is one thing, but on August 22 of that year it turned into something the Orange County District Attorney says is a serious criminal matter.

Righeimer left a council meeting and met with Monahan at the latter's restaurant and bar, drank a couple diet sodas and left. Righeimer got home and went inside his house—but soon had police knocking on his door, asking him to step outside for a DUI test. He was detained for a while, but wasn't drunk.

The police action was prompted by private investigators Chris Lanzillo and Scott Impola, who were working for a law firm that represented more than 120 police unions across California. This included the Costa Mesa Police Officers Association, which retained it to do "candidate research."

The two men tracked Righeimer to the bar and then Lanzillo is accused of calling 911 and reporting that a man stumbled out of the bar and was possibly drunk—and gave a description of Righeimer's car. It seemed like a set up designed to destroy his political career. The episode so outraged Righeimer and Mensinger that they filed a civil lawsuit against the union, law firm (Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir of Upland) and Lanzillo.

Union defenders don't seem too chastened by these banana-republic actions, which include an allegation that Lanzillo and Impola illegally placed a GPS device on Mensinger's car so they could track his movements. For instance, at a recent council meeting, police backers chided Righeimer for suing the union. (The councilmen say their goal isn't money but to force union officials to testify about what happened.)

The criminal prosecutions—felony counts for illegal use of a tracking device, false imprisonment by deceit, conspiracy to commit a crime and falsely reporting a crime—reinforce what the council members have been saying. But, again, this is not just about two PIs with checkered pasts. It's about the dirtiest form of politics.

Prosecutors say Lanzillo and Impola were in contact with the law firm's managing partner the night of the incident. That firm closed following the scandal and allegations of billing misconduct, but had long bragged about its "playbook" of bare-knuckled tactics on behalf of police.

After this story broke in 2012, many unions dumped the firm (including Costa Mesa's), but they long relished its approach. A 2009 U-T article details how the Escondido Police Officers Association appeared to be taking "some of its cues from the hardball battle plan devised" by these lawyers. The firm may be gone, but two of its key plays — storming city council meetings and accusing reform-minded council members of being enemies of "public safety" — were on display at the recent Costa Mesa council meeting.

This raises an important question: How widespread is this kind of behavior? At a Costa Mesa press conference last year, elected officials from other cities made allegations of police using disturbing tactics to achieve their political goals.

"What kind of world do we live in when the people we give guns and badges to hire private investigators to surveil public officials?" asked Righeimer. Calling it "unseemly," OC prosecutor Robert Mestman said this case is significant because the victims "are democratically elected city council members." Mensinger said it seemed Orwellian: "Public officials should not be extorted over public benefits."

Seems simple enough, but none of it will change without widespread public outrage.