Former Palm Springs mayor, developers charged in bribery scandal

RIVERSIDE – Former Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet allegedly took tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from two Coachella Valley developers, who sought and got his support on land projects throughout the city, Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin said Thursday, Feb. 16.

“The money was given to the mayor for his influence,” Hestrin told reporters during a briefing in downtown Riverside to announce charges against the trio. “There was a large amount of money paid for his influence on and off the city council.”

Pougnet, 53, is charged with 21 felony counts alleging corruption by a public official. Richard Hugh Meaney, 51, and John Elroy Wessman, 79, are each charged with 10 counts, including bribery of a public officer and conspiracy.

The men are slated to surrender to authorities in the coming days.

“Our investigation was pretty exhaustive,” Hestrin said. “There was very strong evidence that Mr. Meaney and Mr. Wessman were buying the mayor’s (vote). They had a lot to gain from his actions on the council.”

According to the criminal complaint filed by prosecutors Thursday, money allegedly began changing hands in September 2012 and continued until the fall of 2014, as Pougnet’s term came to a close. He did not seek re-election.

According to Hestrin, the bribes allegedly paid to the mayor totaled $375,000.

The investigation, conducted by the D.A.’s office and FBI, revealed that Meaney and Wessman had stakes in high-dollar development projects that required city council approval, and the then-mayor became their point man for
moving them to ratification, prosecutors allege.

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. and Wessman Development Inc., according to the complaint.

Hestrin said the 18-month public integrity and influence peddling probe benefited from details provided by several unnamed “whistleblowers.” He also thanked the city of Palm Springs for its “cooperation in the investigation.”

“There was no obstruction on the city’s part,” he said.

The D.A. did not anticipate anyone else being implicated in the case and noted that if Palm Springs residents have concerns about the “process” that paved the way for approval of the projects involved, they should consider whether changes are needed in local government.

“The message I hope goes out here is that everybody deserves fair, open and honest government,” the county’s top prosecutor said. “People in public office need to be held to a high standard for the good of the public. They shouldn’t be there to enrich themselves.”

If convicted, Pougnet could face up to 19 years in state prison. Meaney and Wessman could each face 12 years behind bars.

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