Ex-Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet and two Coachella Valley developers pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges stemming from an alleged scheme of payments to the former mayor in exchange for his support of various projects.
The trio had been previously charged by the District Attorney’s Office, but prosecutors — frustrated by delays in moving the case to a preliminary hearing — took the case instead to a grand jury, which returned an indictment against the three defendants.
Prosecutors said last month going to a grand jury for an indictment was “the best method to move the case forward toward seeking justice for the community of Palm Springs.”
Pougnet, 56, and developers Richard Hugh Meaney, 53, and John Elroy Wessman, 80, all remain out of custody on $25,000 bail.
Pougnet was indicted on 21 counts, while Meaney and Wessman were indicted on 10 each. The charges include accepting a bribe by an executive officer, bribing an executive officer, conflict of interest, perjury and conspiracy to commit bribery.
The developers are accused of paying Pougnet around $375,000 between 2012 and 2014 to vote favorably when their development projects came up before the city council.
If convicted as charged, Pougnet could face more than 19 years in prison, and the two developers could face 12 years behind bars. Pougnet would also be barred from ever holding public office again.
Palm Springs Mayor Robert Moon, Mayor Pro Tem Geoff Kors and City Council members Christy Holstege, Lisa Middleton and J.R. Roberts issued a joint statement Aug. 16, the day the indictments were announced, saying they were “pleased” with the decision to have a grand jury review the case.
“The grand jury came to the same conclusion that the district attorney previously came to, issuing indictments against the former mayor and developers John Wessman and Richard Meaney,” according to the statement. “As a result, a trial should now proceed more expeditiously through our criminal justice system and continuous delays will cease.”
The grand jury did not find wrongdoing on the part of any other city staff or elected officials.
“Each of us was elected after the events that led to the indictments occurred and we are proud of the work our council, staff and resident-led task force have done to enact and implement new, ethics and transparency laws and policies that far exceed the requirements of state and federal law, making Palm Springs a leader in open government.”