FBI Raids Palm Springs City Hall

by | September 2, 2015

By Paloma Esquivel

FBI agents and investigators from the Riverside County district attorney's office seized documents Tuesday from City Hall and the mayor's home as part of what the FBI called a public corruption investigation.

Both agencies declined to reveal the nature of the investigation, but the community has been roiled for months after ties between Mayor Stephen Pougnet and a local developer were disclosed by the Desert Sun newspaper.

FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said the document seizure -- which began with a search warrant being served at City Hall -- is part of a probe by the Inland Empire Public Corruption Task Force.

The task force includes local and federal agencies. The search warrant for City Hall was sealed.

No one has been taken into custody. City Hall was closed and the employees sent home.

After the warrant was served, investigators went to Pougnet's home to seize documents mentioned in the warrant, Eimiller said.

Pougnet has been under criticism for months after it was disclosed that he was working as a consultant for a land developer when he voted in favor of selling city property to a company in which the developer is a principal. He later said his vote on the matter was a mistake.

Political allegations have swirled that the land was sold at less than market value.

The Desert Sun recently reported that Pougnet received more than $200,000 as a consultant for the company.

"I am happy to cooperate with the inquiry going on at City Hall, just as I have always been fully cooperative and open in all of my many years as an elected official in Palm Springs," the mayor said in a statement Tuesday.

In an "open letter to the citizens of Palm Springs" that he posted online in May, Pougnet blasted the newspaper and defended his dual role as a consultant and public official.

"Like all my colleagues on council, I also work for a living," the letter said. "In Palm Springs, as in most cities, the mayor and councilmembers serve part-time at the pleasure of voters. One reason I believe we've enjoyed such a renaissance in Palm Springs is because your council, like many of you, work full-time in our community in addition to their service at City Hall."

The Riverside County Grand Jury recently announced it would not investigate Pougnet because "other investigative agencies" were already doing so. Those agencies were not specified.

The raid at City Hall came during the run-up to a November election in which eight candidates are vying for the mayor's seat. Pougnet, elected in 2007 and reelected in 2011, is not seeking reelection.

Candidate Robert Weinstein, a local civil-rights and personal-injury attorney, said the raid was evidence of "tremendous corruption that's been going on for years."

"Some people here are using Palm Springs as a piggy bank, and it's got to stop," he said. "This is one of the most famous resort towns in the world. It's a disgrace."

Lee Weigel, the city's former police chief and a onetime city councilman, said the raid was a "wake-up call" in a city where a number of developers hold powerful sway.

While he was on the council, Weigel said, he was approached by developers asking for special treatment.

"It's a sad day for Palm Springs," Weigel said. "I just hope the electorate in Palm Springs takes heed of this."

Residents taking refuge from the afternoon heat under water misters at downtown restaurants talked about the shocking news.

Richard Skinner, a resident for 23 years, said news of the raid was embarrassing for his community.

"There's a lot of good people who live here and work hard and have pride," he said. "Hopefully all the truth will come out."

In his open letter in May, which included a picture of his husband and their two children, Pougnet noted that working in Palm Springs and serving on the council means sometimes coming "into conflict with decisions before the city."

"We have a mechanism to ensure these conflicts don't interfere with our charter, including the necessary ability to make decisions openly and without bias," he wrote.

Pougnet did not deal with the specifics of the issues raised by the newspaper but chose instead to "share with you some of the many positive highlights" of his years as mayor, including a revitalized downtown, expansion of open space, and an improved airport.

Times staff writer Joseph Serna contributed to this report.

(c)2015 the Los Angeles Times