By Steven Greenhut | Franklin Center
California city officials typically spare police officers even modest reductions in the pay and pension packages that are a main source of local budget problems, even when the other alternatives are cuts in public services or even municipal bankruptcy.
The common explanation is politicians are afraid of the cop unions’ political muscle come election time. That is true, but disturbing behavior by operatives associated with the Costa Mesa police union paints a much darker picture of the fear such unions instill in local officials. The incident has statewide and even national implications.
Costa Mesa Councilman Jim Righeimer had finished speaking at a community meeting last Wednesday, and then headed to a pub owned by fellow councilman Gary Monahan. Righeimer drank two sodas and drove home. After arriving home, a Costa Mesa cop showed up at his door and asked him to step outside and take a sobriety test, which he passed.
That a police officer can ask for a sobriety test after you have returned home is troubling enough, but the details of the case are even more astonishing.
A private eye with connections to the law firm Lackie, Dammeier & McGill of Upland, Calif., which represents the Costa Mesa Police Officers Association and many others across the state, called 911 and reported Righeimer as a possible DUI, representing himself as a concerned citizen. The caller said Righeimer stumbled out of the bar even though surveillance cameras show no such thing. “He’s just swerving all over the road,” the caller stated.
The private eye, Chris Lanzillo, a fired Riverside police officer who showed up at Righeimer’s house in a car without license plates, claims he was not on orders to follow Righeimer. The law firm also denied this but promptly removed Lanzillo’s name from its Web site.
The Costa Mesa union fired the firm, moments before a city press conference. But this backpedaling is not credible. The law firm brags publicly about its brass-knucked tactics, and its Web site features testimonials from unions thrilled by how its legal work brings city managers to their knees. There’s no sense believing anything said by a man whose claims in the police report are not even close to reality. The whole situation screams set up.
“What you have here is police associations and their law firms hiring private detectives to dig up dirt on elected officials that they can then use to extort them, embarrass them or worse in order to get the elected official to vote against the best interests of the city to protect themselves,” Righeimer told me. “That’s the definition of extortion.”
The Costa Mesa City Council is gaining national attention for its willingness to challenge unions. The council has passed pension reform and embraced outsourcing. It recently approved the Civic Openness In Negotiations (COIN) ordinance, which subjects contract negotiations to a level of outside auditing and public disclosure that has infuriated unions.
It would have been an embarrassment had the union ensnared the ring-leader of this reform movement in a DUI. But this is the kind of behavior one finds in police states, or perhaps Mafia organizations. It is not an isolated incident.
Recently, the Orange County Register’s Tony Saavedra reported on the “playbook” used by that Upland firm in its negotiations, and until recently published on the firm’s Web site. These lawyers represent 120 police associations across California, so these are typical tactics.
The fake-DUI call took place soon after Righeimer publicly criticized the firm.
“Its primer for police negotiations is part swagger, part braggadocio and all insult in its portrayal of the public and the budget-conscious officials elected to represent them,” Saavedra reported. He gave this example from the playbook text: “The association should be like a quiet giant in the position of ‘do as I ask and don’t (expletive) me off.’”
The playback calls for work slowdowns, for mobbing council meetings with calls for higher police funding, for scaring neighborhoods about crime problems by going to as many houses as possible looking for suspects for minor crimes. It calls for putting the pressure on officials, gaining their loyalty and then moving on to the “next victim.” This treatment of Righeimer takes a page out of the book.
At a press conference held by Righeimer to spotlight the behavior of unions associated with Lackie, Dammeier & McGill, Councilman Fred Smith of Buena Park, who has also taken a tough stance on unions, said a uniformed officer approached waitresses and demanded to know why their restaurant had a Smith for Council sign in the window, as their squad cars blocked the restaurant parking lot entrance. Elected officials shared examples of threatening statements and text messages by police union operatives. Councilman Monahan has in the past said police have staked out his bar and pulled over patrons as they leave to harm his business.
“It’s a pretty dark side of American policing and I have personally been a victim of this twisted cop behavior when I was police chief,” Joseph McNamara told me, after I mentioned Costa Mesa. He is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former police chief for Kansas City and San Jose. This “gangster cop” mentality, he said, becomes more prevalent during salary negotiations.
The solution? “Strong leadership where the chief, the district attorney and even the feds if necessary treat this as a very serious crime against democracy itself,” he said.
In addition to the gangsters, their consiglieres such as Lackie, Dammeier & McGill, should be investigated as well.
It’s one thing for elected officials to be “taken out” at the ballot box. But quite another thing for them to be harassed, intimidated, and set up on false charges as union operatives, operating under the color of authority, try to silence them.
Steven Greenhut is vice president journalism for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Contact Greenhut at [email protected]