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Court of Appeals reverses judge’s decision to drop charges against developer in ex-Palm Springs mayor bribery case

The California 4th District Court of Appeals has reversed a judge's decision to drop the charges against one of the developers indicted in the bribery case of an ex-Palm Springs mayor.

On Dec. 4, a judge dismissed charges against real estate developer John Wessman. Wessman was originally indicted on nine counts of bribery of an executive officer and one count of conspiracy to commit a crime.

Court documents show that the judge dismissed all counts against Wessman "on the basis that the evidence was not sufficient to sustain the indictment."

News Channel 3 obtained documents from the Court of Appeals showing that the order dropping Wessman's charges has been reversed.

Based upon our independent review of the record, we conclude the evidence before the grand jury was sufficient to support the indictment and that the alternative grounds for affirmance of the order suggested by defendant are not supported by the record. Accordingly, we reverse the order granting defendant’s motion to set aside the indictment

- 4th District Court of Appeals

"We are pleased with the appellate court's ruling," said Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin. "Based on all the evidence, we believe the appellate court ruled correctly and that a jury should decide the outcome of the case."

The case will now return to the trial court with all three defendants, ready to proceed to trial, according to the District Attorney's office. Pougnet and Meaney were scheduled for a trial readiness conference on June 24.

"We anticipate that defendant Wessman will be joined back up with the co-defendants in this case at the June 24 trial readiness conference," adds John Hall, public information officer for the DA's office.

Wessman was indicted along with ex-Palm Springs Mayor Pougnet, 58, and developer Richard Hugh Meaney, 55, on Aug. 15, 2019, after the case was presented to a grand jury by the Riverside County District Attorney's Office.

Check Out Our 'Scandal at City Hall' Section for More Coverage on this Case

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. This includes the massive downtown development project, of which Wessman was the former developer.

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.

"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."

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.

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?''

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.

Read: (2/26/21) Co-defendant in Palm Springs bribery case to get passport back, with conditions

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 and Wessman could face 12 years behind bars.

Stay with News Channel 3 for continuing updates on this case.

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Jesus Reyes

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