S.E. Williams, Staff Writer
Around 9:00 a.m. Tuesday morning, a new history was written for one of Riverside County’s most celebrated cities when an Inland Empire Public Corruption Task Force joined agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and unceremoniously descended on Palm Springs City Hall.
The Inland Empire Public Corruption Task Force and members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were joined by the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, the Internal Revenue Service and the Police Department in the execution of a criminal search warrant.
According to one city council employee, the FBI walked in and asked all employees to leave the building immediately. They were also asked to leave all city-issued electronic devices behind, only department heads were allowed to stay.
Investigators and officials kept their silence with the media—unable to answer any questions because the warrants were sealed; however, their silence did not suppress speculation. Palm Springs political observers were almost certain today’s activities were somehow related to the city’s mayor, Steve Pougnet.
There is a story of alleged corruption in Palm Springs not too dissimilar from sordid escapades experienced in a number of municipalities in both Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, around the state and across the nation—stories of politicians in close and questionable league with developers.
The Palm Springs saga began near the end of 2014, when the City Council with solid and encouraging approval from Mayor Pougnet, sold property on North Canyon Drive to developer Richard Meaney and investor, Yokang Zhou. Pougnet, a member of Palm Springs City Council since 2003, was elected the city’s mayor in 2007.
Shortly after the land deal an investigative reporter with the Desert Sun revealed Pougnet had worked as a contractor for a company named Union Abbey—the company was owned by none other than the developer, Richard Meany. The report also revealed Pougnet was paid over $200,000 for his work with the company—his payments dated as far back as 2013.
The Pougnet-Union Abbey-Meany relationship/scenario was made worse by the fact that Union Abbey’s business license had been suspended by the State of California for at least five years when Pougnet was employed. At the time, Union Abbey allegedly owed the state more than $47,000 in unpaid taxes.
In late May, the Fair Political Practices Commission began investigating Pougnet for possible political ethics violations and alleged conflicts of interest. Also In May, Pougnet announced at a city council meeting his vote on the Meaney/Zhou land deal was an unintended mistake. May was also around the time Pougnet announced he would not seek another term as mayor.
Sometime after 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Pougent issued a statement through City Manager David Ready. In addition, Ready also serves as the city’s Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director of the city’s Redevelopment Agency. The statement in part read how Pougent was, “…happy to cooperate with the inquiry…”
Throughout the day, FBI agents at Palm Springs City Hall were seen removing computer equipment and several boxes of paper records.