People v. Wessman

Decision Date04 March 2022
Docket NumberE076327
PartiesTHE PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. JOHN WESSMAN, Defendant and Respondent.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals


APPEAL from the Superior Court of Riverside County. No. INF1901460 Harold W. Hopp, Judge.

Michael A. Hestrin, District Attorney, and Emily R. Hanks Deputy District Attorney, for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Keker Van Next & Peters, Elliot R. Peters, Steven A. Hirsch Steven P. Ragland, Patrick E. Murray; Rodney Lee Soda, Rodney Lee Soda and David Greenberg for Defendant and Respondent.




Defendant and respondent John Wessman was a prominent real estate developer in the City of Palm Springs (the City). Codefendant Richard Meaney (Meaney) was a business associate of defendant and codefendant Stephen Pougnet (Pougnet), who served as the City's mayor from 2007 until 2015. In February 2017, the People filed a criminal complaint against all three individuals and, in August 2019, a grand jury returned a 30-count indictment against them. The indictment charged defendant with nine counts of bribery (Pen. Code, [1] § 67, counts 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, & 18) and one count of conspiracy to commit bribery (§ 182, subd. (a), count 30).

On December 4, 2020, the trial court granted defendant's motion to set aside the indictment pursuant to section 995, and dismissed all counts against defendant on the basis that the evidence was not sufficient to sustain the indictment.[2] The People appeal from this order. Based upon our independent review of the record, we conclude the evidence before the grand jury was sufficient to support the indictment and that the alternative grounds for affirmance of the order suggested by defendant are not supported by the record. Accordingly, we reverse the order granting defendant's motion to set aside the indictment.

A. Summary of Relevant Evidence Before the Grand Jury[3]
1. Testimony of City Manager

The city manager testified that defendant was a well-known real estate developer in the City. One of defendant's largest projects was the downtown project, which involved the complete redevelopment of an abandoned shopping mall considered a blight on the City's tourism economy (Downtown Project). The Downtown Project had been a high priority among city council members for years, and the City had considered multiple actions to spur redevelopment of the property, including the use of eminent domain. Ultimately, the City entered into a public-private partnership with defendant's company, in which the City would contribute $50 million to the redevelopment, while defendant's company would contribute $200 million.

The city council established a subcommittee specifically for the purpose of managing the Downtown Project, of which Pougnet was a member. The subcommittee would meet regularly with defendant's company; was responsible for resolving numerous issues related to the construction, aesthetics, and management of the Downtown Project; and would reserve only the largest decisions to be made by the full city council. The city manager believed Pougnet would not have been eligible to serve on this subcommittee, if it had been known that Pougnet had a financial relationship with defendant.

In addition to the Downtown Project, the city manager confirmed that between 2012 and 2014, defendant also had other development projects subject to approval or review by the city council, including hotel operations agreements; a housing development project (Pedregal Project); and the development of a gated community (Dakota Project). Pougnet did not recuse himself from the city council's decisions involving any of these developments, although many of these votes were unanimous and in accordance with recommendations by city staff. With respect to the Pedregal Project, Pougnet's vote was a decisive vote in obtaining an outcome more favorable to defendant.

2. Testimony of Director of Community and Economic Development

The former director of community and economic development for the City testified that defendant was the largest locally based developer in the City. Defendant's company acquired a mostly abandoned shopping mall in the City's downtown area in 2001, but struggled to redevelop the property for many years. During this time, Pougnet was opposed to defendant's vision for redeveloping the property, and he was an active proponent of using eminent domain to take possession of the property. In 2010, the city council authorized taking the initial steps needed to begin an eminent domain action and hired an independent firm to develop an alternative plan for the property's redevelopment. However, after consulting with hundreds of community members, the plan ultimately developed was very similar to the plans originally proposed by defendant and, as a result, the City decided to pursue redevelopment through a public-private partnership with defendant.

The director also recalled that Pougnet was a deciding vote on a proposal by defendant related to the Pedregal Project. A prior developer had obtained approval for the project, performed some preliminary work, but lost the property in foreclosure. Defendant had purchased the property and proposed the city council enforce or transfer the prior developer's completion bond to fund completion of infrastructure related to the project. The director believed such a request was unusual in situations in which a subsequent developer assumes a project with the intent to complete it. Defendant's request was ultimately approved in 2012 by a vote of 3 to 2 by the city council, with Pougnet voting in the majority, resulting in a financial "windfall" to defendant.

3. Testimony of City Council Members

C.M. testified he was a member of the city council from 2001 through 2017. He served alongside Pougnet on the City's subcommittee for the Downtown Project. C.M. explained that the public-private partnership for the Downtown Project involved an agreement by the City to purchase all of the land dedicated to streets and parking from defendant. However, the money paid would only be used to fund other aspects of the redevelopment subject to the City's ongoing approval. C.M. also recalled the vote on the Pedregal Project and expressed the view that defendant's request for the City to call or transfer a prior developer's completion bond was unfair, outside the general practice of the City, and represented a significant financial advantage of at least $1, 000, 000 to defendant.

G.F. testified she was a member of the city council from 2003 to 2017. With respect to the Downtown Project, the city council established a subcommittee that handled the details of the redevelopment. Subcommittee meetings that involved negotiation of terms and conditions of the Downtown Project were not open to the public or to the press. One of the subcommittee members would regularly report matters back to the city council, but the city council rarely changed any of the decisions negotiated, and agreed to, by the subcommittee.

P.L. testified that he also served as a city council member from 2011 through 2015. He recalled that shortly after being elected, Pougnet arranged for P.L. to meet with Meaney and asked P.L. to" 'listen'" to what Meaney had to say. Meaney discussed the issue of public improvement bonds in relation to an upcoming vote regarding the Pedregal Project. P.L. understood the project was being developed by defendant and was uncertain why Meaney was speaking to him about the project. P.L. did not recall ever personally meeting with defendant.

4. Testimony of H.M.

H.M. testified that he owned an advertising company, was the chairman of the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), and was involved with various other social organizations in the City. In 2011, he attended a regular meeting of organizers advocating for the passage of a city sales tax that had been submitted to voters for approval. There were about 20 people present, including defendant and Pougnet. Instead of discussing advocacy of the tax proposal, Pougnet unexpectedly announced to everyone in attendance that he could not run for reelection unless he obtained a job in the community. The meeting then turned into a discussion regarding how Pougnet could be convinced to run for reelection.

In response, the PSIFF offered Pougnet a job as a fundraising consultant to be paid $150, 000 annually, or $12, 500 per month, and first paid Pougnet in January 2012. According to H.M., Pougnet was credited with subsequently bringing in many large donors this first year. However, the contract was contingent on Pougnet bringing in more donations than his salary; there was a drop off in fundraising activity associated with Pougnet after his first year; and the PSIFF subsequently cut Pougnet's annual salary to $75, 000 in the subsequent years.

H.M. confirmed that defendant was a founding donor to the PSIFF and served on the PSIFF's board the entire time the PSIFF employed Pougnet. H.M. also confirmed the PSIFF had received a donation of $75, 000 from defendant but, for reasons unknown to him, had to return that donation in May 2012.

5. E-mail Evidence

A special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) testified that she reviewed multiple e-mails as part of the investigation of Pougnet.

In May 2011, Meaney sent an e-mail to Pougnet, stating "Meeting with John on Tuesday. They have spok[en] to Harold. I believe everything is in place. The big question from everyone, including Curt, is what are your plans? . . . Hard to nail everyone down when you're leaving your options open. When are you going to commit to something?" In response, Pougnet sent an e-mail stating: "I need to...

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