Jeff Perilloux

Judge Jeff Perilloux

A St. John the Baptist Parish judge under investigation in two states for the alleged sexual assault of a teenage girl has taken a leave of absence. 

Judge Jeff Perilloux of 40th Judicial District Court informed court officials in a memo that he would be on leave beginning Wednesday.  

The judge made no mention in his memo of a State Police investigation into his conduct, but the announcement from court officials came days after Attorney General Jeff Landry's office scheduled a date to present evidence against Perilloux to a grand jury.

That panel is expected to consider criminal charges against the judge on June 25. 

Perilloux did not take the bench Wednesday morning, though he appeared to be in his office. An assistant said the judge declined to speak to a reporter.

His predecessor, retired Judge Mary Hotard Becnel, will handle Perilloux's docket in his absence. Her temporary appointment expires June 30. 

The leave of absence marked an about-face from Perilloux's initial decision last week to remain on the bench. He has vowed to spend "every nickel" he has defending himself against allegations that his defense attorney has described as categorically false.

The judge addressed a courtroom full of schoolchildren last week at an annual Law Day event intended to educate children about the court system and promote respect for the law. 

St. John Parish judge accused of sexually assaulting daughter's teen friend; State Police investigating

The investigation has been going on since a friend of Perilloux's daughter told Louisiana State Police that Perilloux, who is 50, slid his fingers inside her bathing suit bottom during a family trip to Destin, Florida, in July 2017.

She said that when she backed away, the judge repeatedly begged her to let him proceed and told her not to be scared, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the investigation. 

Two other girls who were on the Destin trip told detectives that they were there when she emerged crying from the room where the incident took place and told them what she claimed Perilloux had done.

The alleged victim, who was 15 at the time, also described two prior incidents that summer, in St. John Parish, in which she said Perilloux reached over her shoulder and touched her breasts while giving her a massage. In the second instance, she told investigators, Perilloux began "stroking" her breasts.

A friend who was in the room, receiving a massage from the girl at the same time, corroborated that a three-way massage took place but said she couldn’t see what Perilloux was doing.

State Police detectives have interviewed several other friends of the judge's daughter, including at least two who said that Perilloux has done things to make them feel uncomfortable, such as patting them on the buttocks.

Investigators also have examined dozens of text messages between Perilloux and the alleged sexual assault victim, along with other affectionate texts he sent to other female friends of his children.

Authorities in Okaloosa County, Florida, conducted a separate investigation last year into the alleged assault in Destin. No charges have been filed, and an Okaloosa Sheriff's Office spokeswoman said Wednesday that the case remains under investigation.

Perilloux's attorney, David Courcelle, did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday. He said last week that the judge "categorically denies that any improper behavior occurred."

"He's been blindsided by this," Courcelle said. "No one from Louisiana State Police has contacted him."

In a statement released to other news media on Wednesday, Perilloux again denied wrongdoing "unequivocally and emphatically" and said he requested a leave of absence "in order to address the allegations made against me and to protect the integrity of the judiciary and the functions of the court."

The judge had told L'Observateur newspaper last week that he intended to "serve the people who elected me to serve for as long as I am able to do so."

Before his change of heart, Bridget Dinvaut, the St. John district attorney, declined to say whether she thought Perilloux should remain on the bench while a grand jury proceeding hangs over him.

"I have no information to give a qualified answer to that. I'm not aware of the facts, the evidence," Dinvaut said. "This is a State Police and attorney general's investigation."

David Belfield, a New Orleans attorney who has practiced extensively before Perilloux, argued earlier this week that it would be appropriate for the judge to take a voluntary leave "until this thing works itself out." Belfield said the judge should avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

"It's a serious accusation," Belfield said. "He sits in matters involving juveniles. Giving the judge all of the benefit of the doubt, he might just want to take a leave of absence. He wouldn't be admitting any guilt — just removing himself from the process for the time being."

Landry spokeswoman Ruth Wisher declined to say why the attorney general has chosen to convene a grand jury rather than consider filing criminal charges against Perilloux based on the State Police investigation.

“I am not going to comment on our process,” Wisher said by e-mail.

Only charges for aggravated crimes such as murder and first-degree rape require a grand jury indictment under Louisiana law.

But decisions to take a lesser allegation before a grand jury are not uncommon in sensitive cases involving public officials, where a grand jury — which acts in secrecy — can lend political cover to the prosecutor, whatever the outcome.

Prosecutors control the proceedings before a grand jury, and the target has no right to cross-examine witnesses or be represented in the grand jury room. Grand juries can issue an indictment, reject one or “pretermit” a case — the equivalent of a hung jury.

Landry’s office has chosen to file charges, rather than seek an indictment, in at least one other criminal case involving a public official. It charged St. James Parish School Board member Tyler Jasmin with a felony count alleging he illegally refilled a prescription for hydrocodone at several pharmacies.

That charge, however, came two days after Landry was sworn into office in January 2016. Jasmin would later plead guilty and step down from the board to avoid prison time.

Perilloux served for 12 years as an assistant district attorney in St. John and was also the legal counsel for the parish government before being elected in December 2016 to a seat on the bench.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.