The recent announcement that a now-defunct law firm will pay $600,000 to a former Costa Mesa mayor and a current councilman and his wife puts to bed an ugly chapter in that Orange County city's recent history.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to ignore the deeper statewide lessons from that controversy, which also spotlights the aggressive "playbook" that some police officials had used to muscle political opponents into submission.
The settlement came in a lawsuit filed in 2013 by former Mayor Steve Mensinger and Councilman Jim Righeimer and his wife, Lene, against Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, an Upland firm that once represented 120 police unions across California and, according to prosecutors, was hired by the Costa Mesa Police Officers Association to do "candidate research."
In 2012, the council majority (Mensinger, Righeimer and Gary Monahan) had proposed a slate of fiscal reforms that included outsourcing some public services and reforming the pension system. The city then became Ground Zero for a statewide battle over unfunded pension liabilities, and the ensuing political fracas turned that year's council elections into an unusually heated affair given the animosity between union activists and the reformers.
Bitter political and election disputes are par for the course, but here's where it turned nasty. After a City Council meeting concluded, Righeimer headed to Monahan's restaurant and bar, where he drank a couple of diet sodas and went home. Shortly after going inside his house, Righeimer said that he received a knock on the door from a Costa Mesa police officer, who asked him to step outside and submit to a sobriety test.
He wasn't drunk, so he wasn't detained, but the lawsuit—and Orange County prosecutors—alleged that an investigator working for the law firm had called in a fake DUI report as an apparent means to embarrass Righeimer. Prosecutors also alleged that one of the investigators placed a GPS tracking device on Mensinger's SUV while it was parked at his house, so they could track his movements during the council campaign. "I'm in shock," Mensinger told the Orange County Register at the time. "This is like a (John) Grisham novel." Indeed.
A lot has happened since then. As the Orange County District Attorney's Office explained, one of the investigators, Chris Lanzillo, "pleaded guilty…to two felony counts of conspiracy to commit a crime of unlawful use of electronic tracking device, one felony count of false imprisonment by deceit, and one felony count of conspiracy to commit a crime of falsely reporting crime to an agency." He was sentenced to 364 days in jail and three years' probation. A second investigator, Scott Impola, died of natural causes while waiting for trial.
The law firm was closed following the revelations and other scandals, including allegations that the firm overbilled the Peace Officers Research Association of California for a legal-defense fund it runs to pay for the expenses of officers charged with wrongdoing. (Talk about ironies.)
Sure, the law firm denies any guilt and described the lawsuit as "absurd political theater that has characterized this case and its baseless allegations from the beginning." The police union, which also was sued by the Costa Mesa officials, described itself as a victim and said that the $7,500 it is reported to pay would come from the law firm, not the union. The union says it "did not have knowledge of the private investigator and did not direct or influence the private investigator."
But justice seems to have been served. "Instead of continuing the litigation, at the expense of our families and the public, we have made the decision to put this saga behind us so we can all get back to business," Mensinger said. Righeimer emphasized the importance of standing up to bullies. But even though the former firm – and its insurance company – paid up, we ought to ask whether the most fundamental issues have been addressed.
Everyone seems to know that it's wrong to use Grisham-type tactics. But the more relevant part of this sordid story relates to "The Playbook," which was the law firm's manual for conducting police negotiations and had been posted on the firm's website. Until the Costa Mesa fracas and reporting on the manual, there wasn't any groundswell from police unions or prominent police officials publicly objecting to what the manual detailed.
The playbook had encouraged work slowdowns and even called for the use of the "blue flu" (having police officers call in sick) in some instances. The now-removed manual said unions "should be like a quiet giant in the position of 'do as I ask and don't [expletive] me off.'" They likewise were encouraged to "keep the pressure up until that person assures you his loyalty and then move on to the next victim" and to scare the public about crime problems.
Punishing bad behavior is great, but shouldn't these broader political tactics be subject to closer scrutiny?
*Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He was a Register editorial writer from 1998-2009. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column was first published by the Orange County Register.