Palm Springs, CA
A grand theft charge was dismissed today against the former bookkeeper of a now-shuttered Palm Springs eatery owned by developer Richard Meaney, who faces multiple felony charges for allegedly bribing former Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet.
Robert Wills, 59, of Palm Springs, was charged with grand theft last May for allegedly forging Meaney’s wife’s signature on 20 checks and stealing 10 pre-signed checks over the course of six months, netting him $26,280 while he was employed at the Hacienda Cantina and Beach Club.
The charge was dismissed by a judge at the Larson Justice Center just over a month after Meaney, developer John Wessman and Pougnet were charged with multiple felony counts, including bribery and conspiracy.
The District Attorney’s Office did not confirm whether the dismissal of Wills’ case had any relation to the charges filed against Meaney. “During the course of the investigation involving Mr. Wills’ case, we received additional evidence that cast doubt on the original allegation,” said D.A.’s spokesman John Hall. “We determined from this information that there was insufficient evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, in the interest of justice, we have dismissed the case.”
Wills’ attorney, Mario Rodriguez, alleged Meaney fabricated the claims against Wills. “The D.A.’s office understood that this whole thing was made up by Mr. Meaney,” Rodriguez said. Using Meaney’s testimony to prosecute Wills would have been a “double-edged sword” for the D.A.’s office, the defense attorney said.
According to Rodriguez, the checks Wills cashed were his compensation for the time that he worked at Hacienda, and not extra stolen funds as claimed by Meaney.
A declaration in support of an arrest warrant alleged that Wills signed the name of Meaney’s wife, Heidi Watney, on $13,400 worth of checks and deposited the funds into his bank account. Comparisons between the checks Wills allegedly deposited and other checks signed by Watney showed that the signatures did not match, according to the declaration.
Wills was additionally accused of stealing 10 checks totaling $12,880 that were pre-signed and kept in the business’ safe for emergency purposes. Police alleged that four surveillance photos taken at a local bank show Wills depositing checks that were later found to be forged.
Wills was arrested on by Palm Springs police. He has no prior felony convictions in Riverside County. The restaurant shut down in November 2015 amid allegations regarding Meaney and his relationship with Pougnet.
Meaney faces the possibility of 12 years in state prison if convicted on nine charges of bribing a public official and one count of conspiracy to commit a crime.