He’s already been indicted twice. He’s likely to be indicted again. State prosecutors have made embarrassing disclosures about the kind of pornography he’s looked at on his work computer, and his ex-wife said on the stand that he should be “put down.”
For a brief period in the fall, it looked as if David Peralta would bend to the seemingly inevitable and step down from his job as St. Bernard Parish president to focus on his mounting legal troubles.
But even as a grand jury meets this week to consider additional charges, it seems increasingly clear that Peralta is not going anywhere, at least not voluntarily.
In fact, he’s even vowed to run for a second term, leaving parish officials and residents with nothing to do but wait to see how the two criminal cases against him play out.
“It just keeps escalating. I just wish the trial would come and go, so we can move forward,” said former Parish President Charles Ponstein, who served two terms beginning in the late 1990s. “I wish the Attorney General’s Office would just finish doing what they’re doing. Let’s find out if the man’s guilty or if he’s not guilty. If he’s guilty, he goes away. If he’s innocent, we get back to business.”
Many locals say Peralta’s legal issues have cast a cloud over the parish, but they’ve largely given up urging him to resign, as some did a year ago.
A new indictment — which may include charges such as conspiracy, witness intimidation, obstruction of justice and malfeasance in office — would halt the case playing out in St. Bernard and delay a trial now scheduled for April. All eyes would then turn to a separate criminal case in St. Tammany Parish, which may be prosecutors’ lone shot at convicting Peralta, 61, before his term ends later this year. St. Bernard’s charter stipulates that the president must resign upon conviction for a felony.
By now, many in the parish, including current and former council members and others, say Peralta’s legal troubles have given a black eye to a parish that long has served as a punch line for some outsiders and is still far from fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina’s destruction nearly a decade ago.
If Peralta had resigned last year, as some urged, the Parish Council could have appointed a replacement. But now, even if he steps aside in coming months — either in a plea deal or from a conviction in Covington — the damage has been done to St. Bernard’s reputation, they say.
Though Peralta insists he will run for re-election, many parish officials believe he has no shot at winning. Two former council members, Wayne Landry and Ricky Melerine, are expected to run, while one current council member , Guy McInnis, is considering it.
“Think about what message (Peralta’s proposed re-election bid) sends. You’ve embarrassed yourself, you’ve embarrassed St. Bernard Parish, and we want more of that? I just can’t see the voters even remotely entertaining that,” Councilman Ray Lauga Jr. said.
Citing a gag order imposed on the case, Peralta declined comment Friday about his legal circumstances. “Certainly, my personal life will be an issue in my re-election bid,” he said.
But that’s only part of it. He said the daily grind of governing means “all incumbents have uphill battles for re-election.”
“I think anytime you’re running as an incumbent, you have a record you have to run on,” Peralta said. “Some of the things people like; some of the things people don’t like.”
Peralta has been in and out of court repeatedly since his ex-wife, Sharon Schaefer, accused him of handcuffing, beating and raping her in their Meraux home in October 2013. He insists that the couple — still married at the time — occasionally engaged in “rough sex” and that he was fulfilling his wife’s “rape fantasy.” Schaefer has denied asking her husband to “rape” her as part of a sexual game; she has said they weren’t even speaking at the time.
Two grand juries charged him last year, first in St. Bernard, where he faces a sexual battery count, and then in St. Tammany, where he’s charged with stalking Schaefer. He has pleaded not guilty in both cases.
Under Louisiana law, sexual battery is described, in part, as “the intentional touching of the anus or genitals of the victim by the offender using any instrumentality or any part of the body of the offender.” It is a less serious crime than rape, but it is a felony and carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
After Peralta’s first indictment in April, three Parish Council members — Lauga, McInnis and Casey Hunnicutt — called on him to step down.
A year later, Hunnicutt is willing to wait for a resolution. “The best option for the parish is just to let this thing play out and see how the cards fall,” he said, “or let the people decide at the election in November.”
In the days after the 2013 incident, Peralta was eager to quell publicity about it. He described it as a domestic situation, and he predicted Schaefer would withdraw her complaint against him, calling it “regrettable that law enforcement officials were summoned into this personal dispute.”
At first, Ron Chapman, a history professor at Nunez Community College and a columnist for the weekly St. Bernard Voice, gave Peralta the benefit of the doubt. Not anymore, he said.
“I still believe in innocence until proven guilty. You shouldn’t leave office until you’re convicted, but at a certain point, you have to ask the question: How much of your time can you dedicate to government responsibilities and how much can be taken up with your personal crisis?” Chapman said. “You have to make a decision as to what’s best for the community and yourself.”
In the meantime, as prosecutors continue to investigate, Peralta has done his own digging, presumably to find information for his defense at trial.
In January, he filed a public records request in St. Bernard that sought text messages and emails from personal cellphones belonging to three parish employees: Donald Bourgeois, Peralta’s onetime campaign manager who works in St. Bernard’s Recovery Department; Technology Director Jeffrey Brannon; and Kelly Lauga, an assistant director of public works.
Some speculated the request was an attempt to gather dirt on people who may be cooperating with investigators, in order to cast doubt later on their trial testimony. In an interview, Peralta said he withdrew the request, but he declined to discuss his motivation for seeking the information.
Peralta’s request — obtained by The New Orleans Advocate through its own records request — argued that the three phones were being used for parish business and thus were subject to the public records law. “I wish to have my expert on site when these phones and computer information is placed on an electronic recording device,” he wrote.
Brannon is expected to testify that Peralta last year asked him to create a handful of phony email addresses, an allegation that may become central to the state’s case against the parish leader in both parishes. Schaefer has accused Peralta of harassing and threatening her in emails sent “from various addresses,” including a few allegedly provided by Brannon.
Earlier this year, parish officials asked the FBI to investigate whether illegal software had been installed on Brannon’s work computer. That led to a visit to the St. Bernard government complex by federal investigators, who spent hours examining computers and servers.
In turn, the parish hired two consultants to audit Brannon’s job performance. One firm, ParaTech LLC, provided a scathing review, alleging that Brannon had copied Peralta’s emails, “assumingly” for state investigators. But many parish observers instead viewed the hiring of the consultants as an attempt by Peralta to employ a firm run by an close ally to raise questions about Brannon’s credibility.
Challenges for both sides
Even though state prosecutors last week said there was a “99.5 percent” chance that Peralta will be charged with additional crimes in St. Bernard as part of a superseding indictment, trying to include the rape allegations may be a challenge, legal experts said.
“I think the biggest issue is that juries very often do not care about rape within marriage, and even though it became illegal in the 1990s, part of the job of the state will be to prove the reality of the harm to the victim,” said Tania Tetlow, a former federal prosecutor who heads the Domestic Violence Clinic at Tulane Law School. “I think sometimes, culturally, we think of rape as harmful only if it’s a stranger, and (that it’s) not the same harm if it’s somebody you have consensually engaged in sex with before.”
Many observers who have followed the case doubt that Peralta would cut a deal with prosecutors at this point after holding out for so long.
But with potentially new charges that include malfeasance and obstruction being discussed recently in court, Peralta may face renewed pressure to step down or accept a plea deal.
Matt Chester, a former federal prosecutor in New Orleans, said that in such investigations, “in many cases, the cover-up is worse than the underlining crime.”
“People have all sorts of motivations for acting the way they act,” Chester said. “This is a highly emotionally charged situation. It’s not uncommon for defendants to dig themselves in a hole further after an investigation begins and then it’s made public and they know about it.”
Many residents in St. Bernard would just like to put the whole episode behind them.
“People in St. Bernard are proud. We’re ridiculed a lot and made fun of a lot by other parishes and other people, and we can take it, but it kind of hurts,” said Chapman, the historian. “This (scandal) is something that’s self-inflicted. I don’t think he can get re-elected. I’d be shocked if he did.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.