Lake Arrowhead PI Involved In Police Union Political Skullduggery Sentenced

A Lake Arrowhead-based private investigator who was a significant participant in the machinations of a now-defunct police attorneys law firm that grew infamous for its assistance to police unions in applying extortionary tactics on politicians to obtain pay and benefit raises for police officers was sentenced last month to just under a year in jail for having placed a tracking device on a former Costa Mesa mayor’s vehicle and an ultimately failed attempt to frame a Costa Mesa councilman on a falsified drunken driving charge.
Christopher Joseph Lanzillo, 47, worked for the Riverside Police Department before he left there to carry out more lucrative work as a licensed private detective. One of his primary clients was the Upland-based law firm of Lackie Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, which billed itself as “Former Cops Defending Current Ones.” Several, though not all, of the firm’s lawyers had previously worked in law enforcement. The firm devoted itself exclusively to issues pertaining to police officers, from defending them in court when they were charged with illegal acts or the use of excessive force on the job, representing them in disciplinary actions initiated by their employing agencies and in assisting police officer unions in labor contract negotiations. Beginning in 2006, Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir also served as a panel firm for the Police Officers Research Association of California’s legal defense fund. Known by its acronym PORAC, the association is a federation of police unions that looks after the interests and rights of law enforcement officers and provides them with legal assistance by doling out money from a trust fund endowed by hundreds of police unions in the state.
Largely under the leadership of Dieter Dammeier, a managing partner at the firm and former police officer in the City of Cypress, Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir grew to become the most powerful police defense practice in California, representing several thousand policemen and policewomen.
Underhanded political activism, indeed what some have characterized as political skullduggery, was a primary element of the firm’s panoply. The firm sought to empower police unions by controlling the outcome of elections or instilling in elected officials a belief that they could do so. Indeed, the firm was so brazen in its approach that it posted on its website instructions, what it referred to as a primer or playbook, on how to swing voters to support initiatives benefiting policeman, elect candidates amenable to upping police pay and benefits, or defeat candidates for election or incumbents up for reelection who opposed police union demands. A key to police unions getting what they want, the Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir website primer said, was to equate higher police pay with public safety. In negotiating with city and county officials, the primer suggested, union officials and spokesmen for police officers should use the electoral cycle to their advantage by representing any elected officials up for reelection as anti-public safety unless they have completely conceded to the union’s salary and benefit increase demands. In general, the firm recommended, police unions and their members should essentially hector officials until they capitulate. Moreover, the playbook called for using work slowdowns and sickouts to pressure public officials and to canvass the entirety of a neighborhood after a burglary call comes in, a tactic to convince residents that they are vulnerable to crime but that the police force is on the go.
Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir was heavily involved in San Bernardino County.
In 2004, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputies had grown concerned that then-Rancho Cucamonga Mayor Bill Alexander was purposed to end the city’s contract with the sheriff’s department for law enforcement service and create a municipal police department. This was considered particularly critical, as Rancho Cucamonga is the third largest of the county’s 24 cities population-wise and the largest among the county’s 14 cities contracting with the sheriff. Alexander was supporting two outsider candidates in that year’s race, Sam Spagnola and David Grossberg. Sensing that the trio, if elected together would effectuate Alexander’s plan to oust the sheriff’s department from Rancho Cucamonga, sheriff’s deputies, under the guise of their union and in conjunction with Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir operatives, began shadowing and surveilling the three candidates. That operation was exposed after Alexander, Grossberg and Spagnola had arranged to meet beyond the Rancho Cucamonga City Limits and across the county line in the downtown Village District in Claremont at a sidewalk café. The union members and Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir investigators were spotted using a parabolic listening device to record Alexander, Grossberg and Spagnola’s conversation. When the union was queried about what had occurred, union officials maintained, somewhat improbably because at that point neither Grossberg nor Spagnola were elected officials, the political surveillance was part of a legitimate investigation into violations of the Brown Act, California open public meeting law which prohibits a quorum of an elected body from meeting in secret or outside the forum of an announced public hearing with a publicly accessible agenda.
While Spagnola was successful in the 2004 race, Grossberg was not. In 2006, Dammeier ran for the Rancho Cucamonga City Council. He was heavily supported by the sheriff’s deputies union and managed to finish third in a field of seven candidates, the first runner-up in a race in which two positions on the council were at stake. While Dammeier failed to break into the ranks of elected officials himself, his firm remained a heavy, and heavy-handed, participant in the political process.
Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir seemed not at all shy about employing its overbearing political tactics nor concerned that it might be held accountable for stepping over line between legal intimidation and blackmail.
In 2012, however, things began to unravel for Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir. That year, the Costa Mesa Police Officers Association was looking to undo the political hold that three members of the city council, then-mayor Steve Mensinger, councilman Jim Righeimer and councilman Gary Monahan, exercised in that Orange County city. The trio had not caved into salary and pension enhancement demands the police union had made, which was consistent with the council majority’s position that the city did not have the financial means to accommodate continually escalating public employee costs across the board.
Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir was the association’s law firm. The association’s board, led by then-association president, officer Jason Chamness, agreed to bankroll an effort to be orchestrated by the law firm to make the city council more amenable to the police officers’ contention that they merited pay raises and benefit enhancements. Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir, which employed several private investigators, assigned former Riverside police officers Christopher Lanzillo and Scott Impola, to tarnish the reputations of, or otherwise compromise Mensinger, Righeimer, Monahan and council candidate Colin McCarthy by carrying out an effort to gather damaging information on them then or set up their for arrest.
Lanzillo and Impola sought to do so by first placing an electronic tracking device beneath the frame of Mensinger’s car. They followed that up by recruiting a 30-ish woman to troll the inside of a bar owned by Monahan on a frequent basis, looking for information and dirt. On the evening of August 12, 2012, the woman alerted Lanzillo and Impola that Righeimer was inside Monahan’s establishment and was drinking. When Righeimer left, Lanzillo and Impola followed him and, once he was on the road, phoned 911 to report that he was driving erratically. When a Costa Mesa patrol unit caught up with him, aided by the directions provided by Lanzillo over his cell phone, Righeimer had pulled up to his house. There he was detained and subjected to a field sobriety test, with his children and wife looking on, which he passed. He admitted he had been at Monohan’s and drinking… diet Coke. He would subsequently produce a credit card charge record showing he had done just that.
When the Orange County Register learned of the rather bizarre traffic stop, coming amidst tension between the city council and the police union, efforts were made to track down the 911 report. That led to Lanzillo, which led to Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir, which led to the police association.
After the Orange County District Attorney’s Office was brought into it, the police association sought to distance itself from the entire affair and implicated Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir.
Orange County Senior Deputy District Attorney Robert Mestman of the special prosecutions unit subsequently determined that on June 19, 2012 Lanzillo, using the alias of Robert Teller with Teller Investigations, purchased a GPS monitoring device and sometime between July 25, 2012 and August 22, 2012 Lanzillo and Impola affixed that device to Mensinger’s car without his knowledge or permission. Lanzillo and Impola used the GPS device to illegally trace Mensinger’s location and movements, according to Mestman. On August 22, 2012, Righeimer and Monahan were at Monahan’s Skosh Monahan’s Restaurant and Bar in Costa Mesa. Lanzillo was in the vicinity that evening, according to Mestman, as was Impola. “Impola and Lanzillo communicated with each other and Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir Managing Partner Dieter Dammeier by calling on their cell phones and through text messages,” according to Mestman. “At approximately 5:45 p.m. on August 22, 2012,” according to Mestman “Lanzillo called 911 and falsely reported that he observed a man stumble out of the location and into a vehicle that matched the description of councilman Righeimer’s vehicle.”
Upon being stopped, according to Mestman, Righeimer had in his possession two receipts for diet Cokes he had purchased at Skosh Monahan’s. After administering a sobriety test and not observing any objective symptoms of intoxication, the officer determined that Righeimer was not under the influence and he was released. “It was later determined that councilman Righeimer did not stumble out of the bar and was not swerving when he drove,” according to Mestman.
Further, according to Mestman, between June 21, 2012, and July 12, 2012, Lanzillo and Impola placed a GPS tracking device on the vehicle of an attorney at a law firm that was a competitor to the Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir firm without the victim’s knowledge or permission. Lanzillo and Impola are accused of using the GPS device to illegally track the location information of that victim.
Lanzillo and Impola were charged and last September Lanzillo pleaded guilty to three felony counts of conspiracy and one felony false imprisonment charge for surveillance.
Orange County Superior Court Judge W. Michael Hayes on March 31 rejected a request by Lanzillo’s attorney, Edward Robinson, for a sentence of probation for his client, whereupon Robinson sought a six month sentence for Lanzillo. Hayes ultimately turned that down as well.
Orange County Assistant District Attorney Chris Duff said Lanzillo was responsible for creating an atmosphere of distrust and intimidation within government and among elected officials that has tainted the political process, by using the skills he had developed as a police investigator “to go after these people” and raise the specter of “dirty politics. He got paid to do it. He was not some innocent dude not knowing what was going on,” Duff said. As a consequence, municipal elected officials, Duff said, are “scared to go to work and scared to be with their families because they don’t know who’s following them.”
Duff asked Hayes to sentence Lanzillo to a year in state prison.
Hayes pulled up one day short of that, sentencing Lanzillo to 364 days in county jail and three years’ formal probation. The judge proved unsympathetic to suggestions that while Lanzillo’s tactics had been questionable, his intent was pure in that he was attempting to ensure that the hardworking police officers employed by the City of Costa Mesa were dealt with fairly and were provided with the financial protection their hard work and the danger they face on a daily basis merits them.
Lanzillo had committed a “crime of the head, not the heart,” said Hayes. And while Lazillo may not have been the architect of the extortionary scheme to bring Mensinger, Righeimer and Monahan to heel, Hayes said, “he was at a minimum a foot soldier in a firm that was using what I call hardball [and] illegal tactics to gain advantage in contract negotiations. This was planned. It was not a one-time mistake. We can’t have that in Orange County.”
Scott Impola, is still awaiting trial.
Neither Dammeier nor any of the other members of Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir have been charged criminally. Nevertheless, the firm imploded in the aftermath of the Righeimer debacle. When the Costa Mesa Police Officers Association moved to distance itself from the firm, there followed widespread attention to the firm itself and its website. Its playbook was condemned as an outline for a strategy that openly touted intimidation and extortion as a political tactic. The playbook/primer was removed from the website shortly thereafter. A number of police-affiliated organizations began to reexamine their relationships with Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir. The firm was dealt three major blows in 2013, the impact from which resulted in the firm’s demise.
In August 2013, the Police Officers Research Organization of California (PORAC), for which Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir had won several notable cases, informed its members that improprieties were found in Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir’s billing practices. The firm, PORAC said, had charged 4,200 hours in one year for a single attorney, averaging 11.5 hours per day for every day of the year. It cited other examples of the firm’s attorneys engaging in obvious overbillings, including ones in which a single attorney billed for three hours in a one-hour period and another billed for 21 hours in a seven-hour period. Shortly thereafter, PORAC dropped Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir as one of its legal representatives. Within two weeks of that development, the firm announced that it was dissolving, although its attorneys continued to work on the cases it was handling, functioning out of its three-story suite of offices at 367 N. 2nd Avenue location.
On October 10, 2013 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 location, and carried off dozens of boxes of documents as well as computers.
In December 2013, the Police Officers Research Association sued Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir, alleging malpractice and fraud relating to alleged overbilling practices, driving a stake into the heart of the once-influential law firm’s corpse. –Mark Gutglueck

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