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.
About a minute later, Steiner told the lawyers to remain in the courtroom and retreated alone to his chambers. When he returned, he solemnly declared that questions about his potential personal biases are "a growing issue" in the case.
"It's not a question of what I think might be the issue," the judge said. "It's a question of what a reasonable person might think. . . . I would never shirk my constitutional obligation, but I think this needs to happen." He then recused himself.
(Another judge working with a special master later gave prosecutors most of the records they sought; no charges have been filed against Lanzillo or Impola—both former cops—though the case remains open.)
In late February, four months after Castillo's revelation, Chapman officials notified the DA's office that one of its students—not the same woman identified by Castillo—claimed to have had a lengthy, quid pro quo sexual affair with Steiner, who helped to land her a prosecutor's job within the past year. The job didn't last, and feelings were hurt.
Susan Kang Schroeder, Rackauckas' chief of staff and a close friend of Steiner's, said the DA's office immediately alerted the California Attorney General's office of the news from Chapman and recused the office from the case. University officials decline to comment on the record. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens personally endorsed Steiner's judge candidacy; her deputies are investigating his conduct. Supervisor Todd Spitzer, himself a former Steiner colleague, said he expects a "thorough" probe.
According to sources, the complaining woman—whose identity the Weekly is not revealing at this point—asserted she can describe the judge's penis in detail, as well as an alleged favored location for sex: on the carpeted floor inside the judge's chamber. Apparently, the sofa squeaked too much.
I've been told investigators want to know if judicial ethics may have been violated if the judge and his alleged prosecutor-cum-sex-partner conducted court business without opposing defense lawyers knowing of the intimacy—and how many other female lawyers or government employees might be involved in shenanigans.
Steiner, who has been transferred to more trivial cases in the Fullerton courthouse, hasn't responded to reporter inquiries. Though no charges have been filed against him, he has retained stern-faced, veteran Costa Mesa criminal defense lawyer Paul S. Meyer.
Meyer, you may recall, represented another OC conservative activist who once worked in the DA's office, became a close aide to Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, and is now a convicted child molester who targeted sex with seventh- and eighth-grade boys: disbarred attorney Jeffrey Ray Nielsen.
[Note: The Weekly first broke news of the Steiner investigation on our Navel Gazing news blog on March 6, 2013; This current column appeared in the paper's online edition on March 27.]