Former Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet made his initial court appearance today in Riverside in a public corruption case allegedly involving hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Pougnet, 53, was slated to be arraigned on 21 felony counts, including corruption by a public official and perjury, but at the request of the Riverside County District Attorney's Office, Superior Court Judge Sam Diaz postponed the plea hearing to May 19 at the Riverside Hall of Justice.
Prosecutors made the same request last month when Pougnet's co- defendant, 79-year-old John Elroy Wessman, was scheduled to be arraigned. The D.A.'s office is trying to consolidate the arraignments into one hearing. The remaining defendant, 51-year-old Richard Hugh Meaney, is set to appear at the courthouse next Friday, but his arraignment is also bound to be joined with the other two men.
Each defendant is free on $25,000 bail. Pougnet and Wessman have both surrendered their passports in compliance with a court order.
Charges against the trio were announced on Feb. 16, when District Attorney Mike Hestrin detailed some of the findings from an 18-month investigation conducted by D.A.'s office personnel and FBI agents.
Hestrin alleged that money trails were uncovered 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 until 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 message I hope goes out here is that everybody deserves fair, open and honest government,'' the county's top prosecutor said.
If convicted, Pougnet could face up to 19 years in state prison, while Meaney and Wessman, who are each charged with multiple counts of bribery of a public official, could each face 12 years behind bars.
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