A judge Friday granted a defense request for a venue change from Riverside to Indio for all future court hearings in a bribery case involving former Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet and two Coachella Valley developers.Pougnet, 53, is charged with 22 counts, including corruption by a public official and perjury. His co-defendants, 51-year-old Richard Hugh Meaney and 79-year-old John Elroy Wessman, are each charged with nine counts of bribery and one count of conspiracy.
The men appeared with their attorneys before Riverside County Superior Court Judge Samuel Diaz, who ruled in favor of a defense motion to schedule all future proceedings at the Larson Justice Center — rather than the Riverside Hall of Justice — without objection from the District Attorney’s Office.
The defendants were slated to be arraigned jointly, but Diaz reset the hearing to June 30 after prosecutors submitted an amended complaint dropping one conflict-of-interest allegation against Pougnet — and adding two more. The specific circumstances behind the two new charges were not disclosed.
The trio, each of whom are free on $25,000 bail, verbally acknowledged Diaz’s order for them to appear at the June 30 arraignment.
Charges were filed against the men in February, and all have made court appearances since then. However, the D.A.’s office wanted to consolidate their arraignments, as well as other hearings, to avoid scattered scheduling.
On Feb. 16, District Attorney Mike Hestrin detailed some of the findings from an 18-month investigation conducted by D.A.’s office personnel and FBI agents. Hestrin alleged that money trails were uncovered going back to September 2012, with “very strong evidence” that Meaney and Wessman were buying the mayor’s votes, paying him in the neighborhood of $375,000.
According to the criminal complaint, money changed hands until the fall of 2014, as Pougnet’s term came to a close. He did not seek re-election.
The investigation revealed that Meaney and Wessman had stakes in major development projects that required council approval, and the then-mayor became their point man for moving them to ratification, according to the prosecution.
Projects specifically listed in court documents include 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., along with Wessman Development Inc., according to court papers.
The public integrity and influence-peddling probe benefited from statements provided by several unnamed “whistleblowers,” according to Hestrin, who said the case underscored the need for “fair, open and honest government.”
If convicted, Pougnet could face up to 19 years in state prison, while Meaney and Wessmanm could each face a maximum 12 years behind bars.
— City News Service
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