BATON ROUGE — For the third time in just over a year, St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta faces a set of criminal charges after a state grand jury on Wednesday handed up a six-count indictment that accuses him of repeatedly tapping his campaign account for gambling.
He already faces charges of stalking in St. Tammany Parish. In April 2014, he was charged in St. Bernard with sexual battery, a felony count that was dismissed last month.
In the latest indictment, Peralta is charged with three counts of perjury and three counts of filing false public records. He turned himself in late Wednesday and posted bond, which was as set at $2,500 per count, or $15,000 total.
Since late 2012, prosecutors allege, Peralta used ATM machines nearly two dozen times at four Gulf Coast casinos to extract about $7,900 from his campaign war chest and gambled with the cash.
The three-page indictment alleges that in some cases, Peralta withdrew the money from ATMs and fraudulently claimed on finance reports to have spent the cash on campaign dinners or meetings that never happened. At other times, he took out the money and intentionally didn’t report the withdrawals “in an effort to conceal these illicit campaign expenditures that supported his gambling habit,” the indictment says.
“It is of no dispute that Mr. Peralta likes to gamble,” Assistant Attorney General David Caldwell told reporters after the indictment was handed up. “What is wrong in this case is you can’t use your campaign finances to support your gambling habit.”
The charges of filing false public records stem from Peralta’s alleged concealing of the true nature of the ATM withdrawals on campaign reports. The three perjury counts stem from the more than two hours of testimony he gave earlier Wednesday before the grand jury, which was convened in the state’s capital because that is where campaign finance reports are filed.
After emerging from the grand jury room, Peralta seemed distracted but upbeat. In the hallway, he bantered with reporters for a few minutes and gazed out the window before eventually leaving the courthouse.
About an hour later, after the indictment was announced, Peralta’s attorney, Martin Regan, told reporters that he was “extremely disappointed” and would nonetheless press ahead with a defense.
“We’re going to ask for the earliest possible trial date we can get, where we can present documentation, cross-examine witnesses and present additional witnesses to be heard by a jury,” he said.
Campaign finance reports filed by Peralta in February detailed thousands of dollars in donations purportedly spent on campaign-related meals at restaurants in or near casinos in 2014.
For instance, he listed a $405.99 tab for a “campaign strategy meeting” on May 23 at Bogart’s Steakhouse at Hollywood Casino and Resort Gulf Coast in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Another campaign meeting listed on June 4 at Besh Steak in Harrah’s New Orleans Casino also cost exactly $405.99.
He also listed five meals beginning in October at The Buffet at Harrah’s that cost either $405.99 or $205.99.
In an interview, Peralta has previously said the meetings were held to discuss this fall’s election with advisers. He said the expenses were often identical because he paid for the meals in cash from an ATM; the extra $5.99 was a surcharge.
Not so, said Caldwell. On the May 23 withdrawal, for example, he said Peralta had claimed his campaign meeting occurred about 3:30 p.m.. However, casino records that tracked Peralta’s gambling showed he was playing slot machines steadily from about 1 p.m. to just after 4 p.m., and he noted that Bogart’s does not open for dinner until later in the evening.
The indictment lists three specific instances when it says Peralta took out money from his campaign account and used it to gamble: Dec. 27, 2013; Sept. 22, 2014; and Feb. 12, 2015.
The latest turn in Peralta’s two-year legal battle comes even as a separate grand jury continues to meet in St. Bernard — raising the specter of a possible fourth criminal case.
State prosecutors have indicated in court that the St. Bernard panel likely will hand up additional charges against Peralta. They could include witness intimidation, obstruction of justice and malfeasance in office.
Peralta, 61, has brushed off repeated calls to resign. Many St. Bernard officials and residents have given up urging him to quit, resigning themselves to waiting either for the courts or a fall election to decide the issue.
It’s unclear whether Wednesday’s indictment will renew calls for Peralta to leave office. It certainly could ratchet up tensions between Peralta and his opponents on the Parish Council, who spent months last year trying to tie his hands by putting a hiring freeze in place and limiting raises for parish employees.
The latest allegations against Peralta fall in step with what appears to be a renewed push among state and federal prosecutors to crack down on campaign finance violations. Last month, the local U.S. Attorney’s Office hit longtime former 22nd Judicial District Attorney Walter Reed with an 18-count indictment, alleging in part that the St. Tammany and Washington parishes prosecutor used campaign donations for personal expenses. Reed, who left office earlier this year, has pleaded not guilty.
For his part, Peralta claims he is being targeted for political reasons, a claim he repeated to reporters Wednesday. In a lawsuit filed last month in federal court in New Orleans, he said state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office used false testimony to obtain the grand jury indictment against him on a sexual battery charge.
On Wednesday, David Caldwell, who heads the public corruption and special prosecutions unit for his father’s office, dismissed the lawsuit’s claims as “beyond dumb.”
In a series of swift turns of phrase, Caldwell called the claims “the legal equivalent of a punish-room fantasy,” seemingly a reference to Peralta’s acknowledged penchant for “rough sex,” and “some two-bit Tulane and Broad tactic,” an apparent swipe toward Regan’s high number of cases at New Orleans’ criminal courthouse.
Caldwell sidestepped a question about whether he believes Peralta should resign in light of the latest charges.
“I don’t have enough time to go and try to train-wreck anybody down in St. Bernard Parish,” he said. “We’ve got too many cases. We’ve got too much stuff to do, so whatever happens down there, happens.”
Although Wednesday’s indictment was the third for Peralta since April 2014, it was the first time he has been accused of committing a crime related to his elected position.
In addition to the ATM charges at casinos, Peralta’s 2014 campaign report also noted three payments, totaling $5,000, that he made to his criminal defense lawyer, Regan, for what’s listed as campaign legal services. The report also noted a $3,780.49 payment to Metairie lawyer Fran Mulhall in August for unspecified legal services on a separate matter.
Generally, politicians may not tap their campaign funds for legal defense in criminal matters.
Peralta said last week that he understood that prosecutors were putting his spending under a microscope.
“I think they have every right in the world to go through these records,” he said. “When you become a political figure, whether you like it or not, it’s just that you’re held to a certain scrutiny, and you know that.”
He told reporters Wednesday, however, that the allegations the grand jury considered were baseless.
Peralta, a former New Orleans police sergeant and St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office major, has watched his legal bills pile up in the wake of an October 2013 incident in which his then-wife, Sharon Schaefer, accused him of handcuffing, beating and raping her in their Meraux home. He claimed that the couple — who were still married at the time — had engaged in “rough sex” that day at her request; Schaefer denied that. They have since divorced.
Meanwhile, Peralta is scheduled to stand trial next month on a stalking charge in Covington. That’s tied to his second indictment, handed up by a St. Tammany Parish grand jury in September 2014, over allegations that he harassed Schaefer, sending her numerous emails despite a protective order that stipulated they were not to have any contact with each other. Peralta has pleaded not guilty to the charge.
Last month, state prosecutors dismissed the first indictment that was handed up against Peralta — the April 2014 charge of sexual battery — after the judge overseeing the case denied the state’s request to delay a trial that was set to begin April 20.
At the time, Peralta declared victory. But that charge, in some form, may be lumped in with the case being considered by the grand jury now meeting in Chalmette.
Molly Lancaster, an assistant attorney general, said in a court filing last month that prosecutors were willing to scrap trying Peralta on the initial battery charge because there was “a strong probability that a superseding indictment will be returned in the near future” but likely not before the trial was due to begin.
Despite the latest charge, Peralta still appears to have a firm grip on St. Bernard’s top job: The parish’s charter stipulates that the president must resign only upon conviction for a felony.
That means the St. Tammany case may be prosecutors’ only shot at convicting Peralta before this fall’s election.
“I’m still running,” Peralta said about his trouble-plagued re-election campaign as he left court Wednesday. “There’s no reason for me not to run. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.