INDIO (CNS) – A judge Friday dismissed all felony charges filed against one of two real estate developers accused of paying bribes to ex-Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet in exchange for favorable votes on certain development projects when they came up before the City Council, but the cases against the other two defendants remain intact.
An attorney for John Elroy Wessman, 82, told Riverside County Superior Court Judge Harold Hopp that the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence to a grand jury on Aug. 15, 2019, which subsequently led to indictments against Wessman, Pougnet and Richard Hugh Meaney.
“The (prosecution) made up for deficiencies in the proof against Mr. Wessman by relying on inadmissible and improper evidence and argument to make their showing stronger,” attorney Elliot Peters told the judge.
Attorneys for all three defendants had asked Hopp to dismiss the charges against their clients for various reasons, but in the end, only Wessman was successful.
“I find the evidence is not sufficient to sustain the charges against him, including the conspiracy count,” Hopp said in dismissing the 10-count complaint.
The judge said there were “significant differences in the level of proof” presented by the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office against Wessman’s co-defendants.
Wessman could have faced a possible 12-year prison sentence if convicted of nine counts of bribery of a public official and one count of conspiracy.
Pougnet, 57, and Meaney, 54, are scheduled to return to court on Feb. 26 for a trial-readiness conference.
Pougnet is charged with 21 felony counts, including perjury, public corruption and conspiracy, while Meaney faces nine counts of bribery of a public official, and one count of conspiracy.
If convicted as charged, Pougnet could face more than 19 years in prison, and would also be barred from ever holding public office again, while Meaney could be sentenced to 12 years behind bars if found guilty. Both remain free on bond.
Prosecutors allege Pougnet pocketed a total of $375,000 between 2012 and 2014 to vote favorably on certain development projects.
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.
Peters argued Friday that the only evidence presented against his client was a collection of 10 checks that were payable to Union Abbey Co., which he said were the result of a legitimate consulting job that Meaney did for Wessman Development.
“It’s certainly not a crime to hire a consultant,” Peters said.
More than 700 pages of grand jury transcripts in the case were unsealed 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.