Once-Influential Police Rights Law Firm Sued By Police Interest Group

(December 19) SANTA ANA—The Police Officers Research Association has sued the recently shuttered Upland-based law firm of Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, alleging malpractice and fraud relating to alleged overbilling practices.
Over the last 16 years, Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir had grown to become what was arguably the most aggressive and successful of law firms in the state devoted to representing police officers and their unions.
Along that way, the firm had made a fair number of enemies, including ones inside and outside the law enforcement establishment, particularly after the firm made use of tactics and surveillance techniques that had formerly been the province of the law enforcement agencies that employed many of their clients.
Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir represented police unions, officers in actions or defenses as well as professional law enforcement interest groups such as the Police Officers Research Association of California, known by its acronym PORAC, which maintained a legal defense fund for officers.
The firm established a reputation for dogged representation of its clients, prevailing in a majority of the cases it handled, occasionally pursuing expensive litigative strategies the unions had not endorsed that more often than not resulted in positive results, either at trial or in settlements short of trial.
A criticism leveled at the firm was that it routinely blurred the distinction between an aggressive legal defense and political activity, as was demonstrated in the unfulfilled political aspirations of one of the firm’s founding partners, Dieter Dammeier, as well as intensive scrutiny that bordered on the verge of invasions of privacy of elected and non-elected government officials and police department administrators in an effort to obtain negotiating leverage in legal cases or labor actions that were characterized by some as intimidation tactics or efforts at extortion.
This year, even as the firm was experiencing unprecedented success on several legal fronts, it was hit with a devastating rearguard action when PORAC this summer alleged Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir had consistently overbilled it.
On September 10, PORAC President Ron Cottingham informed his group’s legal defense fund participants Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir had been removed from its panel of approved providers of legal services, based on a finding of the legal defense fund’s board of trustees “that the former panel law firm Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir has committed serious acts of misconduct regarding their billing practices.”
Cottingham said auditors that had gone over the PORAC Legal Defense Fund books found that Sakunthala E. Ethirveerasingam, one of the firm’s thirteen partners, in 2012 submitted invoices claiming to have worked 4,275 hours, more than double what a full-time attorney would bill for in a typical year, and that she had acknowledged she had engaged in not only double billing, but “triple billing” on occasions where she had worked on three client cases at the same time, billing PORAC for three hours of work during a single one-hour period. Ethirveerasingam uses the professional name “Saku Ethir.”
Auditors had also determined, Cottingham said, that another of the Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir attorneys, Kasey Sirody traveled once to a single destination to interview three clients and then submitted invoices to PORAC’s legal defense fund for three separate trips, including time and mileage.
PORAC’s auditors also accused Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir attorney Peter Horton of billing for “phantom trips” and that he generated “scores of invoices” claiming travel mileage and travel time when he had never traveled at all.
The lawsuit, filed by the Police Officers Research Association (PORAC) on Nov. 26 in Orange County Superior Court, alleges legal malpractice, fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, negligence, unjust enrichment and unfair business practices. It names as defendants attorneys Dieter Dammeier, Michael McGill, Peter Horton, and Kasey Sirody.
The Orange County venue was an inauspicious one for the firm. It was in Orange County where its aggressive tactics in representing law enforcement officers with regard to labor actions came under sharp scrutiny, which in turn led to the demise of the firm, which dissolved earlier this year.
As tense contract negotiations were proceeding in 2012 between the city of Costa Mesa and the Costa Mesa Police Association, the firm, which represented the union, advised members to step up pressure on the city’s elected leadership. Shortly thereafter, a private investigator under retainer by Lackie Dammeie McGill & Ethir, Christopher Lanzillo, began tailing members of the Costa Mesa City Council. On August 22, 2012, Lanzillo followed Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer to a bar, Skosh Monahan’s, owned by another city councilman, Gary Monahan. Lanzillo followed Righeimer after he left Skosh Monahan’s as the mayor drove home, and en route called 911 to report Righeimer was drunk and driving erratically. When police came to Righeimer’s home, they found that he appeared sober but subjected him to a field sobriety test, which he passed. Righeimer subsequently produced a time and date-stamped credit card receipt for two Diet Cokes he had consumed while at Skosh Monahan’s. Information then emerged that the police association had also been seeking, at Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir’s suggestion, to entrap Monahan and another council member, Steve Mensinger.
Soon thereafter, the Costa Mesa Police Association ended its relationship with Lackie Dammeier but not before other Orange County municipal officials, including city council members from Buena Park, Fullerton and Irvine, came forward to tell how the Upland-based firm and its clients engaged in efforts to harass them as they headed into elections and contract negotiations with their cities’ police unions, which were represented by Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir.
So brazen was the law firm in its pro-police union strategies that it posted on its website a political activity playbook that advised police unions on how to intimidate and twist the arms of politicians and lobby the public in a way that associates police pay raises with higher levels of public safety. In the brouhaha that ensued, Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir removed that posting.
The Orange County District Attorney’s Office’s has opened up an investigation of Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir. On October 10, investigators with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, assisted by Orange County Sheriff’s Department detectives and officers, served a search warrant at the 367 N 2nd Avenue Upland law office of the law firm, which at that point was in the midst of decommissioning itself and farming its cases out to various of its former partners or other law firms. Ivestigators carted off scores of boxes full of documents and other materials from the office.

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