INDIO, Calif. - Former Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet and two Coachella Valley developers pleaded not guilty Friday to numerous bribery and perjury charges stemming from an scandal involving hundreds of thousands of dollars allegedly paid to the former city leader.
John Wessman, 78, and Richard Meaney, 51, are accused of paying Pougnet, 54, around $375,000 between 2012 and 2014 so that he'd vote favorably when their development projects came before the city council.
All three defendants entered the courthouse Friday morning without making comments to reporters.
If convicted on all counts, Pougnet could face up to 19 years in state prison and be barred for life from holding public office; Meaney and Wessman could each face a maximum of 12 years behind bars.
INTERACTIVE TIMELINE: Scandal at City Hall
Payments to Pougnet were allegedly drawn directly from accounts maintained by Meaney's Union Abbey Co. and Wessman Development Inc., court papers state. The developers allegedly paid Pougnet through shell companies for consulting work never performed.
Prosecutors allege that these bribes were tied to several council votes on downtown properties, including the Dakota, Desert Fashion Plaza, the Kimpton Hotel and Vivante.
"There was very strong evidence that Mr. Meaney and Mr. Wessman were buying the mayor's (vote)," District Attorney Mike Hestrin said when the charges were announced in February. "They had a lot to gain from his actions on the (city) council."
The defendants entered their pleas after defense attorneys unsuccessfully argued before Riverside County Superior Court Judge Harold W. Hopp that the counts against their clients should be reduced or dismissed.
Attorneys filed papers earlier this year indicating that certain counts should be dismissed for falling outside the three-year statute of limitations on bribery.
With the developers not charged until this February, attorneys say this "presumptively bars prosecution" on those counts.
"It's a discussion about what the actual merits of the complaint are, before you even get into the facts of the case," Wessman's attorney, David Greeberg, said about the motions. "We're really looking forward to getting started, getting cracking on this case. There's lots and lots of discovery to go through. But now, we can actually start to get to work on it, we can start to prove our client's innocence."
Pougnet's attorneys also argue in court filings that the alleged violations charged against him as felony perjury counts should only be charged as misdemeanors under the Political Reform Act.
Ulitimately, the court denied both motions at the hearing.
Amy Zoisbarajas/Deputy District Attorney
"We anticipated the motions that were brought forward today (Friday)," Deputy District Attorney Amy Zoisbarajas said. "They are standard motions brought forth in these types of cases. So, we were prepared for what you saw in court, and we're eager now to prepared to move forward to the next step."
Pougnet's attorney, Malcolm Segal, released this statement following Friday's hearing:
"Today (Friday) was just a procedural dispute as to whether the district attorney properly drafted her complaint. While the Court clearly understood the problem he believed it was sufficient. Former Mayor Pougnet entered a plea of not guilty and expects to take this case before a jury and be fully vindicated. He served the people of Palm Springs well during his tenure as mayor and is appropriately proud of his work on their behalf."
All three defendants remain free on $25,000 bail and will return to court Nov. 8 for a felony settlement conference.
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