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CMPOA: Lawsuit attempts to muzzle critics of City Council

Filing asks judge to strike down suit by Righeimer and company, arguing it is a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, also known as SLAPP.

October 26, 2013|By Jeremiah Dobruck

Costa Mesa's police association responded this month to a lawsuit filed by two councilmen alleging the union, its former law firm and a private investigator conspired to harass and intimidate them for political gain.

Lawyers for the Costa Mesa Police Officers' Assn., called Mayor Jim Righeimer and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger's accusations "an insult" and an attempt to muzzle critics of Costa Mesa's City Council majority led by Righeimer, according to copies of Orange County Superior Court filings reviewed by the Pilot.

Righeimer, Mensinger and Righeimer's wife, Lene, sued the CMPOA, private investigator Chris Lanzillo and the Upland-based law firm Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir in August, asking for unspecified damages.

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The complaint alleges the three defendants used tactics laid out in a playbook posted online by Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir to systematically intimidate and coerce the councilmen for political gain.

An incident in August 2012, when Lanzillo followed Righeimer home and called 911 to say the mayor was potentially drunk, illustrates these tactics, according to the complaint.

Costa Mesa police officer Kha Bao responded to Righeimer's home and administered a sobriety test, determining the mayor was not impaired.

The CMPOA, law firm and Lanzillo have asked a judge to strike the councilmen's suit, arguing it is a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or SLAPP, intended to stifle 1st Amendment rights.

Their filings contend that billboards attacking Righeimer, officers allegedly encouraging citizens to ask for more police, surveillance by Lanzillo and other tactics outlined by the playbook or alleged in the lawsuit are all protected by the right to criticize public officials.

"The fact that [plaintiffs] may not like the 'playbook,' or may find the strategies aggressive, does not render the strategies illegal or actionable," CMPOA's response stated.

A request in the lawsuit to bar the defendants from those practices in the future is an attempt to silence opposition, the filing argues.

"Plaintiffs' last cause of action confirms the true intent behind the filing of their complaint — to intimidate [CMPOA] and others from voicing any disagreement with plaintiffs' attempts to advance their political agenda."

Righeimer campaigned in 2010 on a platform of public pension reform and cost reduction, something the police association vehemently opposed.

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