Dark Side of Pension Reform: Councilman a Target of Police and Union Intimidation

City officials across California typically spare police officers from even modest reductions in the pay and pension packages that are a leading cause of municipal budget problems, even when the alternatives are reduced public services or even municipal bankruptcy.

The common explanation is that politicians are afraid of the cop unions’ political muscle. 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.

Costa Mesa Councilman Jim Righeimer had finished speaking at a community meeting Aug. 22, and then headed to a pub owned by fellow Councilman Gary Monahan. Righeimer drank two diet sodas and drove home. Once in his house, 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 investigator with connections to the law firm Lackie, Dammeier & McGill of Upland, which represents the Costa Mesa Police Officers Association and many other police unions across the state, called 911 and reported Righeimer as a possible drunken driver, 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 told the dispatcher.

The investigator, Chris Lanzillo, a fired Riverside police officer who showed up at Righeimer’s house driving a car without license plates, said he was not on orders to follow Righeimer. The law firm issued a similar denial and promptly removed Lanzillo’s name from its website.

The Costa Mesa police union fired the law firm, moments before a city news conference. But this backpedaling is not credible. The law firm brags publicly about its brass-knuckle tactics, and its website 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 statements in the police report about the Righeimer incident are not even close to reality.

The whole situation screams “setup.”

Extortion

“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 city employee unions. The council has passed pension reform and embraced job 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 Righeimer, the ring leader of this reform movement, in a DUI. But this is the kind of behavior one expects from police states, or perhaps Mafia organizations.

It is not an isolated incident.

Recently, Orange County Register Watchdog reporter Tony Saavedra wrote about the “playbook” used by Lackie, Dammeier & McGill in its negotiations and, until recently, published on its website. These lawyers represent 120 police associations across California, and 19 of associations in Orange County, so these are typical tactics. The fake-DUI call occurred soon after Righeimer publicly criticized the law 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 supporters of higher police funding, for scaring neighborhoods about crime problems by going to as many houses as possible, looking for suspects in minor crimes. It calls for putting the pressure on officials, gaining their loyalty and then moving on to the “next victim.” The treatment of Righeimer takes a page out of the book.

Police intimidation

At a news conference by Righeimer to spotlight the behavior of unions associated with Lackie, Dammeier & McGill, Councilman Fred Smith of Buena Park, who also has taken a tough stance on unions, said a uniformed officer entered a restaurant in his city, approached waitresses and demanded to know why there was a “Smith for Council” sign in the window. This, as police squad cars blocked the restaurant parking lot entrance.

Also at the news conference, elected officials shared examples of threatening statements and text messages by police union operatives. Councilman Monahan in the past has 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 in 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,” McNamara 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 by union operatives, sometimes acting under the color of authority, try to silence them.

(Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He is based in Sacramento. Write to him at steven.greenhut@franklincenterhq.org. Originally posted on CalWatchdog.)