Earlier in 2020, Riverside County Superior Court dismissed bribery and conspiracy charges against John Wessman, 82, one of the property developers embroiled in a high-profile white-collar case involving former Palm Springs mayor Steve Pougnet.
According to court documents, the prosecution had indicted Wessman on eight counts of bribery and one count of conspiracy. Both are felony crimes under state and federal laws.
Following a motion and courtroom argument based on insufficient evidence, the Superior Court judge dismissed the charges against the octogenarian. Wessman’s defense attorney argued the prosecution had failed to adequately establish his client’s connection to the alleged conspiracy to profit off the city illegally.
“It is our position with respect to Mr. Wessman that [the prosecution] presented insufficient evidence to the grand jury,” Peters argued.
The defense also pointed out that the prosecution attempted to compensate for its lack of proof against Wessman by relying on inadmissible evidence. The said inadmissible evidence was an email Pougnet had sent to Meaney indicating his desire to supplement his pay as mayor. The prosecution, Riverside County Deputy District Attorney, Emily Hanks, had argued that the “John” mentioned in the email was Wessman. The defense refuted this claim.
Pougnet and Richard Meaney had submitted similar motions for dismissal, but they had been unsuccessful. The court could not hold a grand jury trial due to the suspension of court activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Then, in February 2021, courts reopened, and Meaney’s defense attorney submitted a petition to have law enforcement release his client’s passport for international travel. Meaney’s attorney had argued that his client faced hardships and bankruptcy because the seizure of the travel document had prevented Meaney from working internationally.
The presiding judge favored the motion as the six-year-old case is expected to stretch into yet another year. Such lengthy trial is characteristic of high-profile white-collar cases in California. However, the court demanded that Meaney makes a court appearance before and after using the passport to leave the United States.
The allegations first surfaced against Pougnet in 2015 after the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Inland Empire Public Corruption Task Force confiscated physical documents and information from computer servers at City Hall.
According to the original charges filed by the District Attorney’s office in 2017, Meaney and Wessman had allegedly paid Pougnet about $375,000 to influence the award of lucrative projects in Palm Springs to the developers’ companies. One of the said projects was the Palm Spring downtown redevelopment project.
If convicted, Pougnet faces 19 years in prison and a lifetime disqualification from contesting for public office. Meaney, on the other hand, faces 12 years imprisonment.