A law firm that represented Costa Mesa's police association allegedly admitted that it hired a private investigator in 2012 to catch a member of the City Council in "a compromising position," according a lawsuit filed last month.

If accurate, the complaint filed by the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California's Legal Defense Fund would confirm for whom private investigator Chris Lanzillo was working when he surveilled Costa Mesa's politicians at a bar and ended up following then-Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer home and reporting him as a possible drunk driver.

The August 2012 incident spawned a civil lawsuit, filed by Righeimer, now the mayor, his wife and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger, that accuses the Costa Mesa police union, its former law firm and Lanzillo of using harassment and intimidation to gain the upper hand in contract negotiations.

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For the record

A previous version of this story incorrectly indentified to whom two Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir partners allegedly made admissions about tailing Costa Mesa City Councilmen. Those admissions were allegedly made to an administrator of the fund, not a board member.



At the time, the Costa Mesa Police Assn. was represented by Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, an Upland firm known for aggressively representing police officers and their unions.

Lanzillo, a former Riverside police detective, has said he did freelance work for the law firm, but he has never publicly revealed who he was working for on that night.

A lawyer for Lanzillo and Lackie, Dammeier argued that the new accusation should be taken with a grain of salt.

It still hasn't been established who employed the P.I., said attorney Jerry Abeles.

The complaint has "all kinds of demonstratively false allegations," he said.

The Legal Defense Fund filed the complaint in federal court last month against Lackie, Dammeier and some of its attorneys.

It alleges that the firm systematically double- and triple-billed for legal work and then threatened Legal Defense Fund board members when the practice was brought to light. Abeles denied there was any intentional overlapping billing.

The fund is the largest of its kind for peace officers. After news of the alleged overbilling broke last year, attorneys began leaving Lackie, Dammeier. The firm began dissolving in September.

In the 37-page complaint, one paragraph directly references Costa Mesa.

The lawsuit claims that Lackie, Dammeier partner Saku Ethir told one of the Legal Defense Fund's administrators that her firm intended to use attorney-client privilege to keep secret "the use of a private investigator and 'female operative' to attempt to get a sitting member of the Costa Mesa City Council in a compromising position …"

Ethir did not return a voice mail Thursday afternoon.

Lanzillo has admitted to working with a woman to try to get dirt on Councilman Gary Monahan on the same night he followed Righeimer in August 2012.