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Scandal at City Hall

Judge dismisses charges against developer in ex-Palm Springs mayor bribery case

A judge has dismissed charges against John Wessman, one of the developers accused in the bribery case involving former Palm Springs mayor Steve Pougnet.

Wessman was facing nine counts, eight of bribery of an executive officer and one count of conspiracy to commit a crime.

The judge denied the motion to dismiss charges for Pougnet and developer, Richard Meaney. The duo's next court date is set for February 26 for a trial readiness conference.

Statement from Palm Springs City Attorney Jeff Ballinger:

"The City is waiting to review the judge’s ruling, in order to determine the judge’s rationale for the dismissal. Fortunately for the City and its taxpayers, the City resolved its civil case against Wessman’s company last year, resulting in over $40 million dollars worth of real property being transferred to the City, for the benefit of those taxpayers. Once we receive a copy of the ruling, we can provide a more specific comment."

Pougnet, 57, and developers Richard Hugh Meaney, 54, and John Elroy Wessman, 82, were indicted on Aug. 15, 2019, after the case was presented to a grand jury by the Riverside County District Attorney's Office.

Pougnet faces 21 felony counts, including perjury, public corruption and conspiracy, while Meaney was indicted on multiple counts of bribery of a public official and conspiracy.

If convicted as charged, Pougnet could face more than 19 years in prison and would be barred from ever holding public office again. Meaney could face 12 years behind bars.

Prosecutors alleged that Pougnet pocketed a total of $375,000 between 2012 and 2014 to vote favorably on certain development projects when they came up before the Palm Springs City Council.

Payments to Pougnet allegedly were drawn directly from accounts maintained by Meaney's Union Abbey Co. and Wessman Development Inc., and additional individuals linked to the developers.

Riverside County Superior Court Judge Harold Hopp unsealed more than 700 pages of grand jury transcripts in the case in March, which revealed several new aspects of the case.

Prosecutors told the grand jury that Pougnet planned to move to Colorado to join his husband and two children when his first term ended in 2011, but the two developers allegedly put him "on their payroll" in order to secure his votes on their projects.

Defense attorneys for the trio had sought to have the transcripts, which include testimony from 13 witnesses, sealed until the end of the trial, arguing that reporting on the material might taint the defendants' chances of getting a fair trial.

"This is a case about political corruption in the city of Palm
Springs,'' Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Amy Barajas told 19 grand jurors last August. "What kind of corruption? Well, one of the oldest stories in the book. Some wealthy real estate developers get a politician on their payroll, and in exchange they get favorable treatment, inside access and large contracts."

According to the prosecutor, Pougnet was hesitant about remaining in Palm Springs and seeking another term as mayor. Barajas presented to the grand jury an email exchange from May 30, 2011, between Meaney and Pougnet, in which Meaney wrote, "Everything is in place. The big question from everyone … is what are your plans?''

Pougnet's response to the question appeared to indicate their relationship hinged on Pougnet securing a legitimate, by-the-book job.

"I need to know that an offer is very real, that I am an employee somewhere that has a letter 'of employment,'" Pougnet wrote back. "That will make a decision much easier to make. As you know, a month ago this was not even an option on the table with me and Christopher (his husband) … staying (in Palm Springs) has huge family implications considering I would be going back and forth.''

The two would later agree to a sum of $225,000, according to an email read aloud by Barajas as she questioned FBI Special Agent Doris H. Webster in front of the grand jury.

"$225,000. When I know exactly what it is, I will sit down with Christopher and we will make a decision," Pougnet wrote back after Meaney offered him $220,000 to "stay in the city of Palm Springs.''

The email passages read by the prosecution did not include any admission by Pougnet that the agreed-upon money was in exchange for anything in particular.

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Jesus Reyes

City News Service

Shelby Nelson

Shelby Nelson is a News Reporter for KESQ News Channel 3. She joined our team in September 2019 after living in San Francisco for 6 years. Learn more about Shelby here.

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