A judge Friday delayed a decision on whether to publicly release grand jury transcripts in the bribery case against former Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet and two Coachella Valley developers, saying he wanted time to review the material to see it contains potentially inadmissible evidence.
Judge Harold Hopp scheduled a Jan. 17 hearing to revisit the issue.
Pougnet, 56, and developers Richard Hugh Meaney, 53, and John Elroy Wessman, 80, were indicted in August after the case was presented to a grand jury by the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office.
Pougnet was indicted on 21 counts, including perjury, public corruption and conflict of interest, while Meaney and Wessman were each indicted on multiple counts of bribery of a public official and conspiracy.
In September, Wessman’s attorney, David Greenberg, filed a motion to keep the grand jury transcripts under seal based on concerns that reporting the content would be akin to “adding gasoline to a smoldering fire,” intensifying attention to a level that would hinder the defendant’s ability to receive a fair trial.
Pougnet’s and Meaney’s attorneys joined the motion.
In Greenberg’s filing, he emphasized the high-profile nature of the case and the need to preclude “prejudicial press coverage” that could put witnesses in the spotlight and contaminate the prospective jury pool, creating a “reasonable likelihood of harm to Wessman’s ability to receive a fair trial.”
The motion took aim at The Desert Sun’s “dogged” coverage of proceedings, suggesting that the paper’s dissemination of information has already cast Wessman and the other defendants in a bad light. The filing went on to criticize the District Attorney’s Office for a “one-sided” presentation of evidence that resulted in the indictments, and it stressed that if the transcripts go public, the slanted details could dash any hope of finding an unbiased panel to sit in judgment.
The D.A.’s answer to the motion to seal challenged the defense to prove how unsealing the transcripts would undermine the defendants’ ability to receive a fair trial.
The Desert Sun submitted a letter to the court arguing against a pretrial seal based on right of public access to a criminal proceeding.
Prosecutors had originally filed criminal complaints against the three men in February 2017 in connection with the alleged influence-buying scheme. But after numerous delays in bringing the matter to a preliminary hearing, District Attorney Mike Hestrin decided to seek an indictment and thereby expedite proceedings, negating the need for a hearing to determine whether a trial was justified.
Palm Springs Mayor Robert Moon was joined by City Council members Geoff Kors, Christy Holstege, Lisa Middleton and J.R. Roberts in issuing a statement on Aug. 16, saying they were “pleased” with the grand jury review.
“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,” the statement reads. “As a result, a trial should now proceed more expeditiously through our criminal justice system. 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.”
The developers are accused of paying Pougnet around $375,000 between 2012 and 2014 to vote and speak favorably when their development projects came up before the city council. Pougnet left office at the end of 2015.
Projects specified in court documents were The Dakota, the Desert Fashion Plaza, The Morrison and Vivante.
Payments to Pougnet were allegedly drawn directly from accounts maintained by Meaney’s Union Abbey Co. and Wessman Development Inc.
If convicted as charged, Pougnet could face more than 19 years in state prison, and his co-defendants could each face 12 years behind bars.
The men are free on bond.