Lawyer: Peralta target of new grand jury in East Baton Rouge _lowres

 

Days after a sexual battery charge against him was dropped on the eve of a trial, St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta alleged in court Friday that he’s been the victim of an audacious political prosecution, claiming that Attorney General Buddy Caldwell is feverishly trying to indict him in order to scuttle Peralta’s re-election chances and hand the race to a friend of Caldwell’s.

Peralta’s attorney, Martin Regan, also said during a brief court appearance that the first-term parish leader is now the target of a new grand jury probe underway in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Regan said he was informed Thursday about the latest grand jury — which would mark the fourth one to investigate Peralta in a year — but was unaware what charges the panel might be considering or why the proceeding was happening nearly 100 miles away. The Attorney General’s Office declined comment.

Those were the latest salvos in a two-year legal saga that has largely played out in public. Peralta decided to go on the offensive three days after prosecutors dismissed the sexual battery charge against him, a decision that followed a judge’s denial of a request to delay the trial, which had been set to begin Monday.

Regan said he was bemused by the latest grand jury investigation but that Peralta was unbowed.

“I can assure you, we’ll be there point by point to match any allegations of wrongdoing,” Regan told reporters.

The Baton Rouge panel would be at least the fourth grand jury seated in the past year by the Attorney General’s Office to consider criminal charges against Peralta, who was indicted for the first time in April 2014 on the since-dismissed sexual battery count.

One of the other grand juries met Tuesday in St. Bernard. That panel is weighing criminal charges against Peralta that may include witness intimidation, obstruction of justice and malfeasance in office.

Peralta also still faces criminal charges in St. Tammany Parish, where he was indicted by a grand jury in September. In that case, he’s charged with stalking his now ex-wife, Sharon Schaefer. Peralta has pleaded not guilty, and he’s set to stand trial in Covington in late June.

In the eight-page motion he filed Friday in 34th Judicial District Court in Chalmette, Regan for the first time alleged that Peralta was the fall guy in a cover-up that reaches to the top of the Attorney General’s Office.

In addition, the broad conspiracy Regan outlined Friday takes in former St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro and Wayne Landry, a former St. Bernard Parish Council member who is expected to run against Peralta in the fall for St. Bernard’s top job. The main aim of the conspiracy, Regan alleged, is to help Landry, who he said is friendly with Attorney General Buddy Caldwell and his son David Caldwell, an assistant attorney general involved in the Peralta probe.

In Regan’s telling, Peralta launched an investigation into Taffaro’s bookkeeping after defeating him for the parish’s top job in a bruising 2011 campaign. The two had bad blood that predated the election; years earlier, Taffaro had fired Peralta from his post as chief administrative officer.

Peralta’s probe found “extensive misuse of parish resources including parish credit accounts, by Taffaro for his personal gain,” Friday’s court filing stated. Peralta presented the information — which allegedly included 80 receipts that showed Taffaro making personal purchases on the parish’s dime, including restaurant bills, women’s lingerie and an $800 bicycle — to the Attorney General’s Office.

At the time, the younger Caldwell met with Peralta to discuss his findings, the filing says. But by then, Taffaro was heading the state’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, where he still works, and nothing came of it.

In turn, the Attorney General’s Office “turned on Peralta and covered up the public money theft,” Peralta alleges in the filing, speculating that it played out that way because Taffaro is also friendly with Landry.

“The AG’s Office used the perjured testimony fabricated by Peralta’s ex-wife to discredit him and pave the way for the election of the Caldwells’ friend, Wayne Landry,” the motion states. “Their strategy was designed to discredit David Peralta as a witness against Craig Taffaro.”

Neither Taffaro nor Landry immediately returned requests for comment Friday.

Separately, Regan alleged that Schaefer perjured herself in the testimony before the grand jury. Though the Attorney General’s Office knew the testimony was unreliable, prosecutors used it anyway because it made Peralta look bad, Regan said.

“Once they learned of it, the Attorney General’s Office did nothing to report the perjured testimony of Sharon (Schaefer) Peralta to the grand jurors or to the court,” Regan’s motion stated. “The Attorney’s General’s Office did so for political purposes outside the scope of their official capacities.”

His filing seeks the unsealing of grand jury records, saying they no longer must be kept secret both because the indictment was dismissed and because the records contain “the factual foundation which proves that the witnesses against Mr. Peralta lied under oath in order to secure the indictment.” A hearing on that motion is set for Monday.

Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, declined to comment Friday, citing the ongoing litigation.

If the grand jury testimony is unsealed, Regan said he will then file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Attorney General’s Office, a copy of which was included as an exhibit in Friday’s court filing. The proposed suit alleges that the office violated Peralta’s rights by using the perjured testimony and covering up Taffaro’s misdeeds.

For now, any decision on releasing the testimony ultimately rests with retired Judge Frank Foil, the ad hoc judge who is handling the case.

Both Regan and Peralta were in court for a brief meeting Friday with Foil. It’s unclear whether prosecutors will oppose the unsealing of the testimony, though Regan indicated he believes they will.

Peralta’s planned lawsuit names Caldwell as well as the other assistant attorneys general who have worked on the case. It lists eight instances of testimony that Regan believes were false, but the specifics of each are redacted. Regan said he will fill in the missing information if the grand jury transcripts are released.

It’s expected that some of the testimony in question deals with whether Schaefer and Peralta had engaged in rough sex before the October 2013 incident that led to the now-dropped sexual battery charge against him.

Schaefer filed a lawsuit against Peralta last year seeking more than $50,000 in damages, alleging that Peralta “raped, sexually battered and sexually assaulted” her on her 49th birthday and that he kept her handcuffed while beating her.

Regan on Friday said the October 2013 incident was “staged” and that Schaefer had money in mind when she accused her then-estranged husband of the brutal act. He referenced a lease agreement for an apartment in Violet that Peralta’s lawyers have previously provided reporters, showing Schaefer apparently signed it September 2013, the month before the incident. Regan said it showed Schaefer had plotted to go there after accusing her husband of rape.

Peralta agreed, saying, “The whole thing was planned.”

Schaefer’s attorney, Stephen Rue, declined to make detailed comments Friday. “We intend to have a full civil trial associated with all of the allegations made by my client,” he said.

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.