Judy Deertrack and Robert Stone—both of whom have declared their intent to run for the Palm Springs City Council—recently disclosed that they were informants to the FBI regarding the Palm Springs City Hall corruption case.
The case has resulted in bribery charges in connection with downtown development against former Mayor Steve Pougnet and developers John Wessman and Richard Meaney.
In total, Deertrack, who is an urban lawyer, and Stone, a real estate broker and author, say they invested about 7,000 hours into collecting more than 10,000 pages of documentation.
According to Stone, he called the U.S. Attorney on the morning of April 10, 2015.
“That afternoon, I received a return phone call from Joseph Widman, U.S. attorney for Riverside County,” Stone said. “He informed me that a supervisory FBI agent, Colin Schmitt, was also on the line.”
Widman and Schmitt were intrigued by what they heard, Deertrack and Stone said, and an in-person interview was set up to be held about 20 days later.
“Judy and I spent 90 minutes discussing the case with Widman, Schmitt, Jorge Chavez from the DA’s office and three field agents,” Stone said. “The last words Schmitt said to us were: ‘You have the full attention of the federal government at the highest level.’”
Deertrack explained what they found that led them to contact the authorities.
“Robert researched the mayor’s income and found a defunct corporation making payments to Pougnet,” she said. “Over three years, I testified to the City Council on 22 projects that appeared suspect. Eighteen of those projects are now in the indictments.”
According to sources, Pougnet and Wessman hated each other, so Meaney was brought in to handle the alleged payments, because he was the mayor’s friend. One of the investigators at one point called the trio “the dumbest criminals ever” because of the way the alleged incriminating payments were made—and there is a possibility that one of the three suspects might cooperate with the DA in return for immunity or a lighter sentence.
Beyond taking credit as whistleblowers, Deertrack and Stone said they couldn’t comment on many specifics, as the case is still under investigation. However, they were obviously able to comment on what they’d do if elected to the Palm Springs City Council come November, when two seats will be up for grabs.
“We need to have a two-term limit,” Stone said. “Eight years for the mayor, and that’s it, because an absolute power corrupts.”
It is worth noting that Pougnet was on the City Council from 2003 to 2007, when he was elected mayor. He served two terms and was apparently going to run for a third before deciding against it when the scandal erupted in 2015.
As for Deertrack, she said her first initiative would be to protect the city from what she called further legal and financial troubles by asking for more state and federal help.
“My very first response would be a motion for the City Council to immediately contact the FBI, U.S. attorney general and state attorney general to confer and identify any ongoing threats to funding, projects or infrastructure as a result of the 18 or so projects that appear in the indictments, and partner with these agencies on remediation,” she said. She referred to the scandal that rocked the city of Bell, and said that city’s remediation actions saved Bell up to $100 million.
Both said they may lose votes as a result of their reputations as whistle-blowers and frequent city-government critics. They also said that they don’t fear for their safety in the wake of their criticisms.
“The intense public scrutiny is its own protection,” Deertrack said. “That does not mean our role was without risk. We were cautioned at times by law enforcement to be careful.”
On a lighter note, Stone, who has authored four books so far, hinted that he may write about the city corruption case one day.
“It’s such a book,” he said.