Palm Springs, CA
Arraignment in the case of John Wessman has been postponed to May 19th at 1:30 PM. All three men accused in the Palm Springs bribery scandal will be in court that day. Prosecutors asked the judge for Wessman to turn in his passport, to which the judge agreed. Wessman must surrender his passport by 4:30 PM today.
John Elroy Wessman, 79, was charged last month with nine counts of bribery of a public official and one count of conspiracy to commit a felony, stemming from a nearly 18-month-long investigation conducted by the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office and the FBI.
Wessman’s former partner, 51-year-old Hugh Meaney, is facing the same charges, while Pougnet, 53, is charged with 21 felony counts, including corruption by a public official and perjury. The defendants are each free on $25,000 bail. Meaney and Pougnet are scheduled to be arraigned separately next month.
District Attorney Mike Hestrin provided a snapshot of the case against the men during a news briefing on Feb. 16, describing the investigation as “exhaustive” and resulting in the discovery of money trails going back to September 2012. “There was very strong evidence that Mr. Meaney and Mr. Wessman were buying the mayor’s (vote),” Hestrin said. “They had a lot to gain from his actions on the (city) council.”
According to the criminal complaint, money allegedly changed hands between 2012 and the fall of 2014, as Pougnet’s term came to a close. He did not seek re-election. Hestrin alleged that the bribes paid to the mayor totaled $375,000. The investigation revealed that Meaney and Wessman had stakes in high-dollar development projects that required 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 court papers.
Hestrin said the public integrity and influence-peddling probe benefited from details provided by several unnamed “whistleblowers.” 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, while Meaney and Wessman could each face 12 years behind bars. However, in the last decade, most of those convicted of white collar offenses in the county have not been sentenced to prison but rather brief jail terms, probation and fines.