Attorneys for ex-Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet and two Coachella Valley developers accused of buying his vote will argue in an Indio courtroom Friday that grand jury transcripts that led to indictments against the trio remain sealed until the end of the trial because it could jeopardize their ability to receive a fair trial.
Pougnet, 56, and developers Richard Hugh Meaney, 54, and John Elroy Wessman, 81, were indicted Aug. 15, 2019 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.
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 Palm Springs City Council.
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 prison, and the two developers could face 12 years behind bars. Pougnet would also be barred from ever holding public office again.
In September, Wessman’s attorney, David Greenberg, filed a motion to keep the grand jury transcripts under seal, citing 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 the case, suggesting that the paper’s dissemination of information had 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.
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.
The men are free on bond.
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