A Costa Mesa councilman, his wife and a former council member Monday settled their lawsuit against a defunct law firm and the city’s police union stemming from an attempt to dig up dirt on the politicians.
The former law firm of Lackie, Dammeier, McGill and Ethir will pay $500,000 on its behalf and $100,000 on behalf of the Costa Mesa Police Officers Association. The police union will pay $7,500, but an attorney for the union said the former law firm will pay that amount, as well, in the settlement of the suit brought by Councilman Jim Righeimer, his wife, and ex-Councilman Steve Mensinger.
The lawsuit stemmed from an attempt by private investigators Scott Impola and Christopher Joseph Lanzillo to get Councilman Jim Righeimer, who was mayor at the time, arrested on suspicion of drunken driving. Righeimer, who had stopped at a fellow councilman’s restaurant and bar for a couple of Diet Cokes, was pulled over near his home, but the officer quickly figured out the DUI claim was bogus.
A GPS device was placed on Mensinger’s car to track his movements.
The police union hired the law firm, which had private investigators Impola and Lanzillo on the payroll.
Impola, who died at the age of 49 last July, and Christopher Joseph Lanzillo, 48, were charged in connection with the Righeimer set-up. Charges against Impola were dropped after his death, but Lanzillo pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year in jail.
Costa Mesa police Officer Jason Chamness — who was president of the union at the time — testified during Impla’s and Lanzillo’s preliminary hearing that the union boosted its retainer to the law firm from $500 to $1,500 a month to dig up dirt on then-councilmn Gary Monahan and Mensinger, along with Righeimer and then-candidate Colin McCarthy.
“Sometimes in life it’s necessary to take a stand against bullies who engage in fraud and misconduct,” Righeimer said of the lawsuit. “It’s especially sad when it is a few bad apples in law enforcement who cast a bad light on all the great hard-working men and women in our police department.”
Mensinger said the settlement “confirms that we have achieved our objectives of accountability, transparency and compensation. 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.”
Attorney Vince W. Finaldi, who represents the Righeimers and Mensinger, said the settlement is an “acknowledgement of the wrongfulness of (the defendants’) conduct towards my clients.”
But attorney Stephen G. Larson, who represents the law firm, said the settlement does not represent any acknowledgement of guilt.
“Without any finding of liability or recognition of wrongdoing by anyone, the law firm LDME and its insurance carrier agreed to a monetary settlement of all the claims and counterclaims between the parties to bring an end to the absurd political theater that has characterized this case and its baseless allegations from the beginning,” Larson said.
Union officials were pleased the law firm will pay all of the money in the settlement.
“We had no intention of paying the Mensinger and Righeimer parties anything out of our pocket,” said union President Josh Kuo.
Attorney Seymour Everett, who represents the union, said the association should never have been roped into the lawsuit.
Union officials “did not have knowledge of the private investigator and did not direct or influence the private investigator,” Everett said.
When union officials “learned of the incident, the CMPA immediately fired the law firm and worked closely with the city and district attorney’s office to bring justice to the council members in the criminal matter,” Everett said.