Ex-Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet and two Coachella Valley developers accused of buying his vote lost their bid Friday to keep sealed the grand jury transcripts that led to indictments against the trio.
Their attorneys argued that the release of the transcripts could jeopardize the defendants’ ability to receive a fair trial, but Riverside County Superior Court Judge Harold Hopp disagreed and ordered the transcripts unsealed, effective March 4.
“It’s pretty clear to me, in light of the fact that there has been extensive publicity on this from day one, that there is not a reasonable probability that unsealing the grand jury transcripts would … cause prejudice to the defendants,” Hopp said in making his ruling this afternoon at the Larson Justice Center.
Hopp’s ruling came after one of the half-dozen defense attorneys in the room representing the trio asked the judge to consider the motion to seal the transcripts in private, citing the inherit difficulty of discussing a motion related to sealed information in public.
Hopp declined to hold a closed-door hearing.
The trio’s next court date in the case is an April 10 hearing on a defense motion to dismiss the case.
Pougnet, 56, and developers John Elroy Wessman, 81, and Richard Hugh Meaney, 54, were indicted last summer, after the case was presented to a grand jury by the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office.
Pougnet was indicted Aug. 15 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 argued for 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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