By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
If rookie Orange County Superior Court Judge Scott Steiner ultimately doesn't escape his predicament involving allegations of a sexual quid pro quo with a female lawyer and the eye-opening confiscation of carpet from his Santa Ana court chambers for forensic analysis, he may consider Oct. 9, 2012, as the beginning of the end.
Just after lunch that day, Steiner opened a hearing into the district attorney's preliminary investigation of one of Southern California's most politically charged questions: Did police-union forces use illegal methods in hopes of sabotaging Jim Righeimer when a private investigator called 911 in August 2012 to falsely report the Costa Mesa city councilman for drunk driving?
At the time, the private investigator, Christopher Lanzillo, worked for an Upland law firm known to practice hardball tactics representing police unions, including the one for Costa Mesa cops. Righeimer, a conservative Republican, has made it a top priority to fight local police-union demands for more lucrative benefit and pay packages. Lanzillo saw Righeimer drinking at Skosh Monahan's, then claimed he witnessed him stumble out of the bar and drive home erratically for several miles. When an officer lured Righeimer out of his house to check for intoxication, he discovered the councilman was sober because, as a bar receipt showed, he'd only consumed two Diet Cokes.
With that background, let's return to Steiner's second-floor courtroom, where the judge was on the verge of announcing a crucial, early decision about whether the fruits of government search warrants executed against Lanzillo and a second private investigator, Scott Impola, could be handed over to the prosecution as evidence or deemed confidential, attorney-client records between the PIs and the aforementioned police-union firm, Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir.
Whether by fate or the grotesque internal machinations of Orange County's powerbrokers, Steiner got the Righeimer matter even though A) both the judge and councilman grew up together in the small circle of local conservative activists; B) Steiner is a former Tony Rackauckas staffer who enjoyed the DA's endorsement for judge; C) Christopher Duff, a deputy DA assigned to the case, is a longtime Steiner pal; and D) Steiner sought and received the endorsement of the Costa Mesa cop union, one of 21 local law-enforcement-employees unions that sided with him in the 2010 election. In other words, the judge had personal connections to just about everyone in the case, and to his credit, he didn't hide those ties.
But as Steiner was preparing to side with his old boss on the search-warrant issues involving cell-phone records surrounding the DUI call, the police-union law firm made a breathtakingly bold move that alerted the judge of another potential conflict of interest, one so embarrassing it ultimately shut down the hearing. Lackie, Dammeier's Kasey A. Castillo hadn't appeared at any of the previous five hearings in the case. She didn't appear in any of the subsequent four hearings either. Castillo had a one-hearing task: pierce Steiner's black-robed, ethical invulnerability.
Before the start of the hearing, the judge met Castillo, a 2005 Chapman University School of Law graduate, outside of public view in his chambers, where she reminded him that eight years earlier—while the then-prosecutor enjoyed a side gig working part-time as a Chapman law professor—he'd cheated on his wife with Castillo's roommate, another law-school student.
A flustered Steiner emerged from chambers, took the bench and cryptically said on the record, "The court doesn't feel that there's any conflict that exists by virtue of that relationship. The court has no contact with that individual today. I'm not under the impression that individual has any connection to this case."
He then asked Castillo if there was "anything else that needs to be said for the record?"
She replied, "Other than what was referenced in chambers, your honor, I don't believe that I need to go further."
Steiner then asked Anthony Kimbirk, the defense lawyer for Impola, if he saw a conflict of interest from the revelation.
"As long as the court believes neither side is getting a leg up, and if the court indicates it's something old and not anything more . . . I have no clear objection," said Kimbirk.
"I can indicate, sir, it has been several years since I have even seen Ms. Castillo's former roommate," Steiner said. "I can assure you—as I would anyone who comes in my courtroom, any defendant, any potential defendant, any attorney—that I endeavor to do exactly what you described. I would never give anyone a leg up."
Steiner, the son of ex-OC Republican supervisor Bill Steiner, then reasserted that because of his campaign ties to police unions, his conflicts aren't one-sided.
"That, the court has disclosed, certainly, yes," Kimbirk replied.
The judge then tried to steer the hearing back to the attorney-client work-product claims on documents nabbed during DA searches, but he was so rattled by the adultery revelation he couldn't remember what records had already been released to prosecutors. "We've had so many hearings on this I have sort of forgotten," Steiner said. "I apologize."
Deputy District Attorney Robert Mestman reminded Steiner that at a prior hearing, the government took Lanzillo's cell-phone records with court permission.
"I don't remember doing that," the judge replied.