Ex-Palm Springs Mayor Bribery Case Returns to an Indio Courtroom

Taylor Martinez

INDIO (CNS) – Attorneys for ex-Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet and two Coachella Valley developers accused of buying his vote are expected to argue Friday that the felony charges against their clients should be dismissed.

The hearing is scheduled Friday afternoon at the Larson Justice Center.

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 and Wessman were each indicted on multiple counts of bribery of a public official and conspiracy.

Prosecutors allege 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 were allegedly 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.

The men are free on bond.

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