The St. Bernard Parish Council likely does not have the authority to force Parish President David Peralta to end a controversial contract that has led to a bitter battle between the two sides of parish government, a state judge indicated from the bench Wednesday after hearing four hours of testimony.
Retired Judge Ashly Bruce Simpson was appointed as an ad hoc judge to hear a lawsuit filed against the council this year in 34th Judicial District Court by the technology services firm ParaTech LLC.
Simpson made his remarks during a hearing in Chalmette. ParaTech’s lawyer, Bill Larzelere, was seeking an injunction against the seven-member council, which has taken a number of steps this month to force Peralta to end the contested contract.
ParaTech’s 2014 deal gave the firm the right to “perform all necessary technology professional services” for the parish. Last fall, however, the council said it would not use the company to handle its email system, contending that the firm’s owner, Richard Perniciaro, was too close to Peralta, whose relationship with the council has deteriorated in the past two years.
After the council told ParaTech that it would hire another company to run its email system, ParaTech filed its lawsuit, saying the council had breached the firm’s exclusive contract with the parish.
Wednesday’s hearing — which ended without a ruling from Simpson — was the latest twist in a conflict-filled week in which the council overrode Peralta’s vetoes of a pair of ordinances it passed to force him to end the contract.
Complicating matters, the council did not hire a lawyer to represent it during the hearing on ParaTech’s suit. Peralta last week requested money from the council to hire two lawyers: one to represent the council in this hearing and another so that Peralta could sue the council himself.
Testimony on behalf of the council at Wednesday’s hearing kept returning to the criminal charges that Peralta faces in two jurisdictions; a St. Bernard grand jury also is investigating additional allegations against him.
Perniciaro has received word from the Attorney General’s Office that it believes it has evidence of wrongdoing by him and is presenting it to the same panel.
The council did not approve either of Peralta’s requests for money. Instead, the council was represented in court Wednesday by its chairman, George Cavignac, who is not a lawyer.
Simpson expressed his annoyance that the council was not represented by an attorney.
But after hours of testimony that frequently veered off-track — Peralta and two council members took the stand and at times aired their bad blood, as the topic kept returning to Peralta’s mounting criminal issues — Simpson indicated that the council may be stuck with ParaTech.
During closing arguments, he told Cavignac that it seemed that the council was “usurping what the president can do” by trying to end the contract. “When you go to sign any contract, it’s not the council chair who signs it, it’s the president,” the judge said.
Cavignac argued that the council is separate from the parish administration and is entitled to hire its own computer firm.
During the hearing, Councilman Guy McInnis testified that legal uncertainty surrounding Pernicario meant the council needed to distance the parish from his firm.
“It’s nothing personal,” he said.
At one point, the judge questioned Larzelere, ParaTech’s attorney, about the rationale behind the injunction he was seeking. “How can the court stop the council from passing laws?” Simpson asked.
Peralta testified that the parish’s contract with ParaTech was exclusive and that the council overstepped its bounds by hiring another company. Peralta said he had “very inexperienced employees” in the parish’s own technology department and that he relied on ParaTech to fill in the gaps.
“They built the system; they helped develop it; they were the obvious choice,” he testified about hiring the company.
Though the council declined last week to give him the money to sue them, Peralta filed his own lawsuit Tuesday against six of the council’s seven members, alleging they had “unlawfully and illegally” attempted to end the ParaTech contract. His lawsuit, filed by his criminal defense lawyer, Martin Regan, seeks a temporary restraining order to reinstate the deal.
Throughout the hearing, Peralta — seated in the front row of the courtroom — occasionally grimaced at the council members seated nearby. A few times, the two sides mumbled remarks at each other.
At one point, Larzelere asked McInnis about the council’s current relationship with the parish leader.
“So it’s fair to say there’s a pretty big disconnect between the Parish Council and the parish president?” Larzelere asked.
“These days, I would agree with that assessment,” McInnis replied.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.