With legal bills mounting, embattled St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta recently considered setting up a legal defense fund to cover the cost of fighting two criminal indictments handed up against him this year.
Peralta apparently asked the Louisiana Board of Ethics for an opinion about whether setting up such a fund would be legal, and board attorney Jennifer Land got back to him in a letter dated Nov. 24.
Land gave him the OK, although she mentioned numerous stipulations imposed by state law.
Her letter mentions that Peralta, in his request for an opinion, told the Ethics Board that “individuals would like to create and administer a legal defense fund in order to pay” legal expenses unrelated to his role as parish president.
Peralta’s request said the fund would not accept money from parish “employees, contractors, or officers or employees of contractors” and that he would “have no control or administration” of the fund, although he would attend fundraising events, hire his own lawyers and “provide direction concerning all matters to do with” the criminal charges.
In her reply, Land pointed out a number of restrictions that would apply to such a fund.
For example, she noted that public officials cannot receive anything of value from anyone seeking business, compensation or influence with the parish, or who could potentially gain from Peralta’s standing as parish president.
In an interview Friday, Peralta said he hasn’t decided to set up the fund and asked for an ethics opinion only to be on the safe side.
“Through some talks with some friends, I was considering whether or not I could,” he said. “When we were talking about it, we decided, well I decided, let me get it now in case I decided to do it.”
Peralta — who plans to run for re-election next year — would not be the first public official facing criminal charges to look for financial help from his friends. Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, sentenced this year to 10 years in federal prison, created a website to raise money for his legal defense. Like Peralta, Nagin has never admitted wrongdoing.
Peralta’s legal issues stem from an incident in October 2013 in which his then-wife, Sharon Schaefer, alleges that he handcuffed, beat and raped her in their Meraux home. Peralta maintains that the couple engaged in “rough sex” that day at her request, but she has denied that assertion, saying the couple weren’t even on speaking terms at the time.
He was indicted by a state grand jury in April on one count of sexual battery in connection with the allegations. He pleaded not guilty and was released on a $20,000 bond. In September, he was indicted again — this time by a grand jury in St. Tammany Parish — on one count of felony stalking for allegedly harassing Schaefer. He has posted a $35,000 bond on that charge.
The Attorney General’s Office is prosecuting both cases.