A few weeks ago the Costa Mesa Police Association (read: Police Union) and their former law firm agreed to pay $607,000 to settle a lawsuit after their scheme against two Costa Mesa city councilmen came to light.
As I wrote in my book, this settlement represents a small but important victory in the broader philosophical war between California’s public employee unions’ unquenchable demand for more and the handful of public officials willing to stand and say there is simply no more to give. This result should also give hope to public officials across the state who have been at the pointy-end of the public employee unions’ so-called “advocacy” during labor negotiations or an election cycle.
The plot that eventually led to the settlement sounds like the set-up for a Don Winslow novel, but everything you are about to read is true.
On August 22, 2012 a private investigator, Chris Lanzillo, who was employed by the police union’s law firm was tailing the two councilmen in hopes of digging up dirt for use against them in the upcoming November city council elections.
The two Costa Mesa city councilmen were in the police union’s cross-hairs because they were trying to cut-back public employee pensions and benefits. The city had a $5.1 million budget deficit that year, and the offending proposal reduced retirees’ pensions from 90 percent of their salary at age 50 to a mere 81 percent of their pay at 55. That same year, Costa Mesa had 99 employees who earned more than $200,000.
Pensions and benefits are the Rubicon of California politics, and anyone who crosses - Democrat or Republican - self-identifies as an enemy of the public employee unions. Threatening to reduce pensions and benefits is truly the only mortal sin a California public official can commit. Forgiveness can be granted or an indulgences purchased for just about anything else.
For most people reading this, the last three paragraphs probably conveyed alarming information. Yes, the police union used lawyers who thought nothing of hiring a private investigator to tail city councilmen. The law firm, Lackie Dammeier & McGill, was well-known for its hardball tactics and had grown a considerable practice representing police unions because of them. At the height of its influence, the firm represented 18 of the 39 police unions in Orange County, California. In other words their tactics were widespread and what happened in Costa Mesa wasn’t unique or unusual.
Costa Mesa’s union lawyers were brash about their success, so much so that they published a how-to guide for pressuring and intimidating city councils called The Playbook.
Comparing its recommendations to the use-of-force guidelines police follow, The Playbook suggested their union clients “start with verbal commands” and “jump to a higher level” if the situation with their city’s elected officials did not progress to their liking. The Playbook recommended storming council meetings and public events to chastise elected officials about their lack of concern for public safety. “Focus on a city manager, councilperson, mayor, or police chief,” The Playbook recommended, “and keep the pressure up until that person assures you [of] his loyalty, and then move to the next victim.”
Does this sound extreme? Maybe. But when you consider the stakes for California’s public employee unions it’s easy to see why law firms like Lackie Dammeier & McGill would exist.
California’s public employee pensions have evolved to the point where in every city across the state there are millions and millions of dollars at stake. Last year in California more than 62,000 public employees retired with six-figure payouts. Seven pulled down more than $1 million in pension payments, all of them retired from police or fire departments.
Which brings us back to Chris Lanzillo and the two city councilmen in Costa Mesa.
On the evening in question, Lanzillo followed the two councilmen to a bar called Skosh Monahan’s, which was owned by the third member of the Costa Mesa City Council (also a police union target). There, the private investigator watched one of the councilmen, Jim Righeimer, have two drinks, get in his car, and leave.
Seven minutes after Righeimer got home, his wife told him there was a Costa Mesa Police officer at the door.
Righeimer immediately knew something was wrong.
The Costa Mesa Police Officer (described in the press as the department’s DUI ace) asked Righeimer to step outside.
The officer told Righeimer that someone had called 911 to report that he’d been driving under the influence. Righeimer confirmed that he’d just gotten home from Skosh Monahan’s, but told the officer he hadn’t consumed any alcohol. He’d drunk two Diet Cokes and later produced a receipt to prove it.
The officer nevertheless performed a field sobriety test on Righeimer on his front porch, while his wife and now-teary little girls, 6, 8, and 10, watched.
The city councilman passed the test.
When the officer left, Righeimer saw him go up the street a short distance and talk to a man parked in a white Kia.
Righeimer knew he’d been set-up.
The next day he went to the press with what happened. When the 911 call that reported him driving erratically became public, his suspicions were confirmed.
Lanzillo (the man in the white Kia) had been following Righeimer and called in the bogus DUI. He’d followed the Costa Mesa city councilman to his home and waited there until the police arrived.
False 911 calls weren’t the only things Lanzillo was doing that day. It turns out he was at Skosh Monahan’s with a woman Ian Fleming might describe as a honeypot. Lanzillo had hired her in hopes of luring another Costa Mesa city councilman into a compromising position which could be exploited, although the councilman didn’t fall for the trap. “I’ve got nothing to hide,” Lanzillo later said about the scheme. “I do this stuff every day… To other people, it looks wrong, . . . but it’s not illegal. You ever watch ‘Cheaters’?”
Despicable as this plot is on its face, it’s more troubling on an even deeper level. What did the police union and its law firm intend to do with the kompromat if Lanzillo and his female accomplice had been successful? Were they going to run an ad in the local paper with a photo and New York Daily News-style headline? Announce at a city council meeting that the councilman was stepping outside of his marriage?
Of course not. The union and its lawyers would use the information quietly, privately, in a one-on-one phone call. Consistent with the instructions in The Playbook, councilmen faced with the prospect of this damaging information coming to light would assure their “loyalty.” The union and its lawyers probably thought of this as leverage, but district attorneys and prosecutors might call it something else - extortion.
If the unions and their lawyers had been successful, these two elected officials would have never again posed a threat to Costa Mesa’s public employees’ pensions or benefits. And but for the lawsuit and this settlement, they would have then been free to move on to their next victims.
Patrick “Kit” Bobko is the author of “Nine Secrets for Getting Elected: The Official Manual for Candidates from City Hall to the Statehouse and Beyond” available on Amazon.