The Costa Mesa Police Officers Assn. doesn't plan to sue the city after officials denied its claim asserting that the municipality is responsible for the union's legal fees.

The association had sought indemnification from the legal costs of defending itself from a lawsuit by two councilmen that alleges the union was part of a plan to harass and intimidate them for political gain.

A claim against a municipality can be the first step in litigation, and although the association believes the City Council wrongfully denied the request Tuesday, association President Det. Sgt. Ed Everett said, "The association will pursue all of its options and at this point has no plans to sue the city."

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In August, Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger, Mayor Jim Righeimer and Righeimer's wife, Lene, filed a lawsuit alleging the police association, its former law firm and a private investigator plotted against the two councilmen to gain the upper hand in contract negotiations.

Among other things, the lawsuit alleges the defendants placed a GPS tracker on Mensinger's truck and tailed him to a bar from which a private investigator then followed Righeimer home and called 911 to report a possible DUI. A responding Costa Mesa police officer determined Righeimer was free of any impairment.

Mensinger's attorney says the councilman learned of the GPS device only when the Orange County district attorney revealed it to him as part of an investigation into Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, which is known for representing police associations throughout the state, including Costa Mesa's.

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Association allows search

The CMPOA has turned over documents and consented to a search as part of the investigation, according to the organization's president.

"The police association has cooperated with the district attorney," Everett said.

FBI and the district attorney's investigators reportedly raided Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir's offices in October.

A spokeswoman for the district attorney did not return a call for comment.

Costa Mesa's police association fired Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir around the time of the DUI call incident last year and has denied any knowledge of the firm's allegedly aggressive tactics.

Everett argues that the police officer who responded to the private investigator's 911 call was only performing his job's normal duties, something the city would be obligated to defend.

"Although the association is a nonprofit organization, it is comprised of city employees, and the lawsuit is again the result of an officer doing his job," Everett wrote in an email.

Attorneys for Righeimer and Mensinger argued that taxpayers shouldn't subsidize defense of the crimes they're alleging.

The councilmen's lawsuit itself states its intent is not to sue any rank-and-file police officers or the department itself.

"I'd say it was a pretty easy call," Vince Finaldi, an attorney representing the councilmen, said of the council's 3-0 vote to deny the request.

Mensinger and Righeimer recused themselves from the vote.

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Association's Finances

Everett said the association's legal costs are estimated to run $50,000 to $100,000.

Union membership at the department has dropped from about 150 to 100 in the past few years, he said. Each member pays $60 a pay period in dues, most of which is paid to other organizations who provide services, such as legal defense for disciplinary or administrative issues.

That leaves only a small cash reserve for a lawsuit that doesn't fall into those categories, Everett said.

"The hard working men and women of the police department look forward to being vindicated in court," he said. "Unfortunately, it will be a long and drawn out process."

Discovery in the councilmen's lawsuit has been stalled, to the frustration of Righeimer and Mensinger's lawyers.

The three defendants froze scheduled depositions and requests for documents when they filed a motion alleging the councilmen were trying to stifle 1st Amendment rights to criticize public officials in what's known as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or SLAPP.

The plaintiff's attorneys have asked for that stay to be lifted so the facts of the case can be heard, and the defendants have asked that the case be dismissed altogether.

The next court date is Jan. 27.