The developer behind Durango’s Mirador townhomes is facing felony corruption charges in Palm Springs stemming from business dealings with the city’s former mayor and another developer.
John Wessman, 78, is charged with nine counts of offering a bribe, according to a criminal complaint filed last week by the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office, and faces a potential 12 years in prison if convicted.
Wessman, who lives in Palm Springs, did not return a call for comment.
The developer began building in Palm Springs in the 1960s. He has two hotel projects pending in Memphis as well as the Mirador residential development in Durango, known better locally as “Box on the Rocks.”
The project was unique in that it did not require a public review process or City Council vote because of its location and an existing development plan for the city’s western ridgeline, so Durango city staff members approved the project internally in 2006. The first units were built in 2007 on Rock Point Drive, above Greenmount Cemetery.
Phase two of the nine-phase, multi-unit project broke ground in December adjacent to the existing triplex. Mirador will consist of 23 units when completed.
Michael Braun, Wessman’s son-in-law and senior vice president at Wessman Development, wrote in an email to The Durango Herald that the pending charges will not impede Mirador construction.
“We anticipate the build-out of phase two to be completed by late summer 2017 and the remaining phases by 2018 to complete this exciting housing project,” Braun wrote.
Durango officials, including Mayor Christina Rinderle and City Manager Ron LeBlanc, said they were unfamiliar with the details of the case, and they had no comment.
A statement from Wessman Development issued last week announced Wessman’s retirement and asserted his innocence.
“While John Wessman denies all of the allegations of the complaint, which he will vigorously defend, the paramount concern of John Wessman, Michael Braun, all of the Wessman entities and the entirety of the staff, is to ensure that all projects proceed in a timely manner to completion,” the statement reads. “In light of these events, John Wessman has formally retired and is no longer involved in the management or in the day-to-day operations of Wessman Development, Wessman Holdings, or other related entities.”
Wessman partnered with the city of Palm Springs on a $400 million plan to reshape the downtown area that includes a hotel, shops and restaurants.
The complaint alleges that between 2012 and 2014, ex-Palm Springs mayor Steve Pougnet was paid $375,000 from Wessman and another developer, Richard Meaney, in exchange for votes to advance the developers’ interests. Palm Springs is a city in Southern California in the Coachella Valley.
The document identifies nine payments to Pougnet and 11 votes on seven projects or land sales to benefit the two other defendants, including approval of development plans and variances.
Meaney faces the same charges as Wessman. Pougnet was charged with nine counts of receiving bribes, eight counts of conflict of interest as a public official and three counts of perjury.
All three men face an additional charge of conspiracy to commit bribery.
The charges come about a year and a half after an FBI raid on Palm Springs City Hall, prompted by The Desert Sun’s reporting on Pougnet’s ties to the developers. Over several months in 2015, the newspaper investigated how Pougnet received suspect payments from Meaney’s company, Union Abbey, for ambiguous consulting work. Pougnet left office in December 2015.
The Los Angeles Times quoted Riverside District Attorney Mike Hestrin in a news conference last week with local reporters: “This was a bribe and not just business. It was pretty brazen, and it was pretty obvious.”