St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta was indicted Wednesday by a state grand jury on a single charge of stalking his ex-wife, marking the second time that the first-term parish leader has faced criminal charges this year.
Thus far, Peralta, 60, has resisted pressure to resign his post, though many parish observers expect that the latest indictment could force his hand.
Peralta was indicted by a grand jury in St. Tammany Parish on a charge of felony stalking for allegedly harassing his ex-wife, Sharon Schaefer.
The indictment was based on testimony from Schaefer and evidence seized during a recent search of Peralta’s home and office by investigators with the state Attorney General’s Office, which is prosecuting the case.
During the July searches, investigators took several computers, a cellphone and other materials from Peralta. The search warrant indicated that investigators believed they had evidence of witness intimidation, obstruction of justice and malfeasance in office, though it provided no details.
On Wednesday, Peralta’s bail was set at $35,000. He is expected to turn himself in on Monday.
The latest indictment was likely set in motion after Schaefer alleged in court filings that Peralta continued to “harass and threaten” her in recent months in emails sent “from various addresses” and in online posts on the website nola.com, despite an agreement reached by the ex-couple’s attorneys stipulating that neither Peralta nor Schaefer would contact the other in person, by telephone or electronically, and that neither would threaten the other.
Schaefer, in court filings, alleged Peralta broke the no-contact agreement. She produced 17 pages of emails and said the exchanges had caused her “significant distress, fear and anxiety.”
Peralta faced a contempt hearing last month on an allegation of violating the terms of the restraining order. But Judge Michael Kirby, who handled the case for the 34th Judicial District Court in Chalmette, agreed to dismiss the contempt motion without prejudice at the request of Schaefer’s attorney.
Kurt Wall, the director of the Attorney General’s Office’s Criminal Division, said prosecutors are “continuing to evaluate all of the evidence, and we will aggressively pursue any criminal conduct associated with this case.”
The latest charges mark the second time that Peralta has been indicted by a grand jury this year. He was charged in April with one count of sexual battery for allegedly raping Schaefer, then his wife, on her 49th birthday in the couple’s Meraux home. Peralta has said he engaged in “rough sex” with his wife on that occasion, at her request, and he has pleaded not guilty to the charge.
Although Peralta has resisted calls to resign, on Wednesday he appointed parish Finance Director Ross Gonzales as interim chief administrative officer, placing him next in the line of succession if Peralta were to resign. Gonzales temporarily assumed the role of the parish’s top-ranking official when Peralta went on a medical leave of absence earlier this year to undergo treatment for skin cancer.
Former state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal Judge David Gorbaty, who has largely filled the chief administrative officer’s role on a volunteer basis since December, will “remain in his capacity as my volunteer executive adviser,” Peralta said Wednesday in a letter to the Parish Council’s clerk.
On Wednesday, Parish Council Chairman Guy McInnis, who called on Peralta to resign after he was indicted in April, said the mounting legal problems have been “a distraction” for parish government.
“It’s been a distraction and it’s been a disappointment, but I think right now we just need to relax and let whatever’s going to happen, happen,” he said.
McInnis said the appointment of Gonzales was “a good move.”
If Peralta resigns, the Parish Council will have 30 days to appoint an interim parish president, who will hold the position until an election can be held next year.
“President Peralta has a personal decision to make. I think we need to give him some room,” McInnis said. “He’s getting ready to go through some trying times, obviously, and I can only hope that he’s going to make the right decision for our parish.”
McInnis said Peralta sent him a text message early Wednesday indicating that he had “no intention of resigning” that day.
Assistant state Attorney General David Caldwell, who heads the public corruption and special prosecutions unit for the Attorney General’s Office, said at the 22nd Judicial District Court in Covington that he hoped Wednesday’s indictment would send a message that “prosecutors are not going to tolerate somebody coming in and trying to influence the process.”
“It’s hard enough to prosecute these cases. Victims and witnesses have to know that somebody is going to have their back,” he said.
Schaefer, who was at the courthouse Wednesday, said she was “just relieved right now that they came back with the indictment they came back with,” but she insisted that she wants to see her ex-husband jailed.
“I haven’t been able to set anything in motion in my life,” she said. “This has taken up everything. This has consumed my life. What he has done to me has just consumed me so far, and I need to be able to get along with my life, and I can’t do it until everything is settled.”
Peralta declined comment to a reporter Wednesday. His attorney, Stephen London, said Peralta would turn himself in Monday and post bond.
“He’s going to get out and we’re going to evaluate the charges and go from there,” he said.