As a state grand jury considers possible new criminal charges against St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta, a potential key government witness in the widening criminal probe into the embattled parish leader has come under new scrutiny after two reports offered mixed reviews of his job performance.
The reports were commissioned by the parish last month after a much-publicized visit to the parish government complex by federal investigators, who spent hours examining computers and servers.
During a hearing last month in 34th Judicial District Court in Chalmette, Peralta’s defense attorney, Martin Regan, said parish officials asked the FBI to investigate whether illegal software was installed on a work computer used by Jeffrey Brannon, St. Bernard’s director of information technology.
Peralta’s mounting legal issues stem from an October 2013 incident in which his then-wife, Sharon Schaefer, has accused him of handcuffing, beating and raping her in their Meraux home. Peralta maintains that the couple engaged in “rough sex” that day at her request; Schaefer has denied that, saying the couple weren’t even on speaking terms at the time. They have since divorced.
He was indicted in April by a grand jury in St. Bernard on one count of sexual battery in connection with the allegations by Schaefer. He pleaded not guilty and was released on a $20,000 bond. The case is expected to be tried in April.
In September, a grand jury in St. Tammany Parish charged him with one count of felony stalking for allegedly harassing Schaefer. He pleaded not guilty and posted a $35,000 bond. That case is set for trial in May.
The grand jury seated in St. Bernard last month is considering possible additional charges, including witness intimidation, obstruction of justice and malfeasance in office, a source familiar with the matter told The New Orleans Advocate.
A Dec. 12 court filing in Peralta’s sexual battery case shed some light on the government’s thinking. In requesting the subpoenas, an investigator with Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office disclosed that a parish employee alleged that Peralta had asked him to create phony email addresses for him.
It’s widely believed by parish officials and other observers that the employee in question is Brannon.
Last year, in the midst of their divorce, Schaefer accused Peralta of continuing “to harass and threaten” her in emails sent “from various addresses” and in online posts on the website nola.com.
The December filing alleged that Schaefer received emails sent from the addresses provided by the parish employee to Peralta. Caldwell’s office requested the subpoenas to collect records for the Internet Protocol, or IP, addresses where the emails originated.
Meanwhile, two reports completed in recent weeks by technology consulting firms hired by the parish were mostly critical of Brannon’s job performance.
Brannon did not return a call for comment Monday. Craig Betbeze, a spokesman for the FBI’s New Orleans office, declined comment.
Reached by phone, Peralta declined comment.
Parish Chief Administrative Officer Michael Gorbaty said Monday that he had reviewed both reports but had questions he needed to clear up before taking action. “All of the concerns will be addressed,” he said.
The initial report was done by ParaTech LLC, of New Orleans. It noted that David Gorbaty — a former judge who volunteers as Peralta’s assistant — contacted the firm last month to audit the parish’s computer systems and the department’s leadership.
Overall, the firm’s report had a dim view of Brannon’s job performance. It alleged that beginning late last year, Brannon was copying Peralta’s emails, which it said was “assumingly” done for state investigators.
“He simply does not have the education nor real-world work experience required to proactively run the department, repair the systems or manage the resources,” the report said of Brannon. It said his department suffers from “misplaced priorities, inattention to detail, lack of skill deployment and lack of management experience.”
A separate report done last week by another firm, Network Logic LLC, of Mandeville, found that some software needed to be updated. It said much of the computer cabling was in disarray, and it chided Brannon for not installing software filters to prevent parish workers from using work computers to visit illegal or unauthorized websites.
In general, the report said, Brannon had a “pretty good overall knowledge” of the computer network but lacked “project management skills that are preventing him from focusing more on important core issues.”
ParaTech has a long relationship with the parish that has at times become litigious. The firm entered into a contract with the parish last year to “perform all necessary technology professional services.” However, the Parish Council resisted using the company to handle its email system.
Last fall, the council told ParaTech that it would hire another company to set up a separate system for its email, a move that ParaTech said breached its contract.
The company filed a lawsuit against the parish, which quoted Council Chairman Guy McInnis as saying that ParaTech’s owner, Richard Perniciaro, was “Dave’s guy” and that the firm “could not be trusted to keep the council’s technology information private and away from the office of the parish president.”
In court filings, ParaTech argued that the council’s emails were public record, and it accused the council of “failing to maintain the integrity of the public records.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.