O.C. police union dispute brings scrutiny of law firm's tactics
September 16, 2012
Law firm Lackie, Dammeier & McGill, which represents many police unions, has a reputation for aggressive attacks against city halls. One critic described its tactics as 'litigation terrorism.'
Jim Righeimer believes he was being set up when a private eye made a 911 call and said he'd seen Righeimer stumbling out of Skosh Monahan's pub in Costa Mesa and swerving his car between lanes. Righeimer passed a sobriety test and produced a receipt for the two Diet Cokes he'd bought at the pub. (Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times / September 16, 2012)
One after another, people stepped before the Costa Mesa City Council to decry the blight and lawlessness on tiny Ford Road — prostitutes, thieves, home invaders. What the city needs, they pleaded, is more cops.
Councilman Jim Righeimer, a GOP activist and an architect of the city's controversial plan to radically slash its workforce, perceived the parade of concerned citizens as the pawns of a police union and its law firm, with its statewide reputation for bare-knuckle tactics.
"This City Council is being held hostage by the police union," Righeimer railed from his seat at the Aug. 21 meeting. "This council will not be shaken down."
The next afternoon, Righeimer assembled a team of city officials to tour Ford Road and recommend improvements. Afterward, he stopped at a Newport Boulevard pub, Skosh Monahan's, then climbed into his GMC Yukon and drove home.
Minutes later, a policeman arrived at his door to ask if he'd been drinking. Someone had called 911 to say Righeimer had stumbled out of the pub and swerved his car between lanes.
Righeimer passed the field sobriety test, furnished a $6.47 receipt for two Diet Cokes and wasted no time seizing the political moment. He was being set up, he announced at a press conference.
The 911 caller, it emerged, was a private investigator who worked for the police union's Upland-based law firm, Lackie, Dammeier & McGill. The firm insists it did not send the investigator to follow Righeimer, and the police union denies involvement.
The Orange County district attorney's office is now investigating the case, which has thrust Costa Mesa's protracted city-union battle back into the spotlight. It has also raised scrutiny of a law firm with vast influence in the state and a reputation for aggressive attacks against city halls.
In the wake of the Righeimer incident, several unions — including the Costa Mesa Police Officers' Assn. and the Los Angeles Police Protective League — have dropped the firm.
The firm advertises itself as "former cops defending current ones," and its website touts a long list of what it portrays as triumphant contract negotiations with cities on behalf of police-union clients. It has an advertised clientele of more than 120 public safety unions in the state.
Until recently, the website featured a detailed list of "tools" that police associations can employ to push decision-makers "into giving in to your position."
"The association should be like a quiet giant in the position of, 'Do as I ask and don't piss me off,'" the website read.
"Storm city council," the site suggested, to chastise uncooperative elected leaders. Campaign against them. Send attack mailers. Picket. Take out newspaper ads. Launch websites denouncing the city. Use "every high profile crime" to argue that more cops could have prevented it. Pay for billboards.
"Nothing seems to get more attention than a billboard entering the city limits which reads that crime is up and the City could care less about your safety," the site said.
The site suggested using "work slowdown" as a tactic, such as "asking for a backup unit on most calls," as well as "blue flu," a staged sick-out by police officers. The site also touted the effectiveness of tightly focused attacks.
"Focus on a city manager, councilperson, mayor or police chief and keep the pressure up until that person assures you his loyalty and then move on to the next victim," the site read.
The firm has since removed this section, saying it was "historical and educational material" misread as tactical advice.
However, critics of Lackie, Dammeier & McGill say the content represented an accurate description of its tactics.
"If you look at their playbook, we have been the victim of almost all of it," said Montclair City Manager Edward Starr, whose city is in its second year of contract negotiations with police. The city, he said, has spent more than $600,000 defending itself against the law firm.
Rob Pipersky, 59, a Montclair resident and longtime police officer there, said his union is in the grip of Dieter Dammeier and his firm: "They drink the Kool-Aid. They think this guy is the best guy in the world."
At a meeting earlier this year, Pipersky said, his union discussed launching a recall of city leaders who had resisted union demands.
"I ended up calling them carpetbaggers," Pipersky said. "I said, 'You're a bunch of outsiders coming into my town to overthrow my council and put your people in to give you what you want.'"
He said his union has since barred him from meetings.
Attorney Scott Grossberg said he was hired to defend the city of San Gabriel against what he describes as frivolous lawsuits filed by Dammeier.
In one case last year, Grossberg said, the firm filed a tort claim demanding parking fees its clients incurred during a failed mediation session. It was for $40.
"He doesn't write a letter," Grossberg said. "This is what he does. It's knee-jerk, over-the-top bullying. 'If you don't do things my way, you'll see me in court.'"
He described Dammeier's tactics as "litigation terrorism," though within the law.
Buena Park Councilman Fred Smith said when he became mayor in 2010, the city's police union — represented by Lackie, Dammeier & McGill — objected to his choice for police chief and his insistence on installing cameras in patrol cars.
As he left a party that December, he said, a Buena Park policeman pulled him over and gave him a sobriety test, which he passed.
Though he has no evidence linking the law firm to the incident, he said a police union leader called him later and said, "Have you had enough yet?"
In Costa Mesa, Righeimer, a real estate developer, has been the most visible proponent of the city's plan to save money by outsourcing hundreds of municipal jobs. The campaign has made Costa Mesa a model for the GOP and Righeimer an object of deep loathing by public employee unions.
In his 2010 campaign for City Council, Righeimer argued that soaring labor costs were pushing the city toward bankruptcy. He publicized the pay of Costa Mesa's police brass, many of them making more than $200,000.
The unions, in response, publicized Righeimer's personal financial woes, including liens and debts, which Righeimer says he's paid off.
The council, on which Righeimer's bloc enjoys a 4-1 majority, has outsourced the city's police helicopter program, replaced some sworn police officers with civilians and insisted on a less lucrative pension package for new officers.
At the pub on Aug. 22, Righeimer, who describes himself as an infrequent drinker, said he bought a Diet Coke for himself and one for fellow Councilman Steve Mensinger.
As Righeimer left the pub, a white car without license plates followed his Yukon down the block, surveillance video shows.
"I think he's DUI," private investigator Chris Lanzillo told a 911 dispatcher as he followed the councilman. "He's swerving all over the road. I don't know what's wrong with him."
Righeimer said he was given a field sobriety test in front of his three young daughters. He said his wife confronted Lanzillo, who had apparently parked down the block waiting for police to arrive, but he swerved around her and sped away.
Lanzillo says he was on another assignment that afternoon and wasn't tailing Righeimer.
Dammeier described Lanzillo as "one of many PIs we have used" and said that he was not employed or authorized to conduct surveillance on Righeimer.
"We will not apologize for 'aggressively' protecting those that put their lives on the line every day protecting all of us," the firm said in a statement. "We will continue to fight for our clients using every available legal tool at our disposal."
Righeimer said he is eager to know what the district attorney's investigation reveals about Lanzillo, a former Riverside police officer who claimed in a lawsuit he'd been fired for union activities. His former chief told the Riverside Press-Enterprise that Lanzillo was fired for doing "really bad things."
Staff writer Lauren Williams contributed to this report.