Embattled St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta is almost certain to face additional criminal charges, including conspiracy, a prosecutor with the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office told a state judge at a hearing Wednesday.
“I think there’s a 99 percent chance there’s going to be a superseding indictment,” Assistant Attorney General David Weilbaecher Jr. told Judge Frank Foil, the retired judge appointed to hear the case in 34th Judicial District Court in Chalmette. Weilbaecher described the case as “a rapidly developing situation.”
A state grand jury was empaneled last month to consider multiple criminal charges against the first-term parish president, reportedly including witness intimidation, obstruction of justice and malfeasance in office. Weilbaecher said jurors will continue deliberating in the coming weeks.
Peralta’s attorney, Martin Regan, claimed in court Wednesday that Weilbaecher’s disclosure of the imminent indictment was proof that the state’s case “has fallen apart.”
Peralta has faced mounting legal troubles since his ex-wife, Sharon Schaefer, accused him of handcuffing, beating and raping her in their Meraux home in October 2013. Peralta’s defense has hinged on his insistence that the couple — still married at the time — occasionally engaged in “rough sex” and that he was fulfilling his wife’s “rape fantasy” that morning. Schaefer has denied asking her husband to “rape” her as part of a sexual game.
Peralta was indicted by two grand juries last year, first in St. Bernard, where he faces one count of sexual battery, and then in St. Tammany Parish, where he’s charged with stalking Schaefer. He has pleaded not guilty to both charges. Both cases are scheduled to be tried in the spring.
If a superseding indictment is handed up by the latest grand jury, that would halt the legal proceedings against Peralta currently playing out in St. Bernard, Weilbaecher said. A new judge would likely be appointed by the Louisiana Supreme Court to handle the new case, though it wouldn’t affect the state’s case in St. Tammany.
Foil — who has repeatedly warned both sides that he intends to have a trial underway in two months — pressed ahead. “Until I get a formal dismissal of this indictment, I’m going to move forward on this case,” he said.
During the hourlong hearing Wednesday, Foil rejected a request from Regan to require that future court filings in the matter be made under seal. Regan made the request last week after prosecutors alleged in a court filing that they wanted to introduce evidence of additional crimes they believe Peralta has committed.
The state’s filing alleged that Peralta intended to extort Schaefer during their divorce proceedings using hundreds of sexually explicit photos of her. It also suggested that Peralta last year frequented thousands of hard-core pornographic websites, many of which depicted forced sex.
Prosecutors said they anticipated the new evidence would show Peralta had a motive for attacking his then-wife and would pave the way for additional charges.
Regan fired back in a court filing a day later, alleging that the Attorney General’s Office was interfering with Peralta’s right to a fair trial and trying to taint potential jurors.
On Wednesday, Regan urged Foil to allow him to introduce testimony from a group of witnesses seated in the courtroom who, he said, would offer testimony to rebut accusations detailed in the state’s filing.
Regan disputed several of those allegations. He said Peralta never used his parish-issued credit card and did not play a role in a 2013 suspension handed down by the parish against his then-wife. Allegations that parish employees were gambling at work involved simply lunch bets and wagering on fantasy football, Regan said.
For his part, Foil appeared dubious as to why much of the litany of potential crimes had been introduced into the court record. “What is the relevance of a lot of these things on this indictment?” he asked Weilbaecher, noting that he considered it was “very questionable as to whether this would be relevant.”
Regan quickly agreed. “All we want is a fair trial and a chance to respond,” he said.
Assistant Attorney General Molly Lancaster defended the state’s filing, saying it showed Peralta had demonstrated a “pattern of behavior” leading up to the October 2013 incident, which showed that this was “not a typical Friday night in the Peralta household, despite what the defense wants to entertain.”
Foil, though, did not allow Regan’s witnesses to take the stand. He told both sides that he was “attempting to restrict the matter to the facts and circumstances” surrounding the sexual battery charge.
“I don’t want to allow any circuses,” he said.
Responding to Regan’s attempt to shield future court filings from the public, an attorney for The Times-Picayune sought to intervene in the case in order to oppose his request. Lori Mince, an attorney for the newspaper, said a “blanket sealing order” went against the public’s constitutional “right of access to criminal proceedings and court records.”
But Gary Wainwright, an attorney who also represented Peralta, argued that some balance was necessary, alleging that the attorney general’s filing last week was “slanderous” and an attempt at “character assassination.”
Foil granted Mince’s request and denied Regan’s request, saying he was “not going to be a monitor for all pleadings.”
Both sides are due back in the Chalmette courthouse next week for another hearing.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.