Hindsight is easy, of course. But after St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta was indicted Wednesday — for the third time in just over a year — on charges including perjury before a grand jury, some legal experts and other observers suggested he may have simply dug himself a deeper hole by choosing to testify in the first place before the grand jury that was considering evidence he had misused campaign funds.
It was a high-risk gamble that offered a slim shot at helping his case, and one that ultimately didn’t pay off.
In the end, Peralta was charged with three perjury counts in addition to three counts of filing false public records, all tied to thousands of dollars that he is accused of withdrawing from his political war chest to gamble at Gulf Coast casinos over the past three years.
The speed with which the six-count indictment was handed up — less than an hour after Peralta spent two hours testifying — is also perhaps a sign that the grand jurors, as well as state prosecutors, found his explanation underwhelming. The three-page indictment alleges that the money was withdrawn from ATMs and fraudulently listed on finance reports as being spent on campaign dinners that never occurred, or that Peralta took out the money and intentionally didn’t report the withdrawals “in an effort to conceal these illicit campaign expenditures that supported his gambling habit.”
What explanation Peralta offered to the grand jury is unclear because its deliberations are kept secret. But the fact that jurors were not swayed is clear, legal observers say, given the perjury counts Peralta now faces. And the decision to testify may haunt Peralta if the case heads to trial, inasmuch as he’s already tipped his hand to prosecutors and will be stuck with the story he’s given.
“You do it (appear before a grand jury) if you think you have a chance of convincing the grand jury not to indict, but as a practical matter, there are very few situations in which you really have a chance of influencing the grand jury,” said Shaun Clarke, a former federal prosecutor who is now an attorney in private practice in Houston.
Besides the six counts handed up Wednesday in Baton Rouge, Peralta faces a stalking charge in St. Tammany Parish that’s set for trial next month. In April 2014, he was charged in St. Bernard Parish with sexual battery, a felony count that was dismissed at the state’s request days ahead of an April 20 trial date.
If he’s found guilty of the latest allegations, each perjury count carries a potential five years in jail and $10,000 fine, and the false-records counts each carry a five-year jail term and up to $5,000 in fines.
In an interview Friday, Peralta said the decision on whether to testify was a mutual one between him and his attorney, Martin Regan. “I had no reason not to,” he said.
As for the apparent discrepancies on his spending reports, Peralta claims that he had issues with record-keeping, blaming the Attorney General’s Office for seizing his computer last year.
That’s why, he said, some transactions went unreported, though he offered no explanation for why prosecutors allege he occasionally withdrew money and spent it gambling when he said he was dining with donors or advisers.
The latest charges are the first to relate directly to Peralta’s role as a public official. They’re perhaps the most severe, experts say, and if prosecutors have evidence from the casinos — such as surveillance tapes and gambling records — to back up their claims, they may be the most difficult to defend against.
“Obviously, he’s innocent until proven guilty, but it just seems like an awful lot is kind of being stacked up at the same time,” said Matt Chester, a former federal prosecutor who now works as an attorney at Baker Donelson in New Orleans.
Peralta’s campaign finance report from February may have offered a glimpse at the case prosecutors presented to the grand jury. It revealed thousands of dollars in donations that he purportedly spent on campaign-related meals at restaurants in or near casinos in 2014.
He listed a $405.99 tab for a “campaign strategy meeting” on May 23 at Bogart’s Steakhouse at Hollywood Casino and Resort Gulf Coast in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. A June 4 supposed campaign meeting at Besh Steak in Harrah’s New Orleans Casino also cost exactly $405.99.
He also listed five meals beginning in October at The Buffet at Harrah’s that cost either $405.99 or $205.99.
Peralta has said the meetings were held to discuss his upcoming re-election bid with advisers and that the expenses were often identical because he paid for the meals with cash from an ATM; the extra $5.99 was a surcharge.
But prosecutors allege that casino records tracking Peralta’s gambling show he was steadily playing slot machines for hours in the period when he claims to have met with advisers.
If that’s the same explanation he offered Wednesday, the grand jury apparently didn’t buy it, Chester said, as shown by how quickly the panel handed up the indictment after Peralta finished testifying.
Legal experts said that while it’s unusual for someone to be indicted so many times in several jurisdictions — Clarke called it “a smorgasbord of legal charges” — it’s certainly an approach that prosecutors can take to try to turn up pressure on a defendant to plead guilty.
In an interview last week, Assistant Attorney General David Caldwell said Peralta has only himself to blame, noting that the original April 2014 charge of sexual battery acted as a catalyst for prosecutors to give him further scrutiny.
“This is unique in that this is actually a reflection, I think, of the public attitude toward corruption,” Caldwell said. “Once that first indictment came out, there was all this other information where people came forward that caused us to have to go look at things. The one who has created this problem of the multiple indictments and multiple venues has been Peralta himself.”
Peralta sees it differently, saying the piling-on of charges shows it is a political prosecution and an effort to pressure him into trying to cut a deal and resolve all the charges at once — a step that, he said, he’s not willing to take.
“I’m not going to plead to something that I didn’t do,” he said. “I’m going to stand up to them.”
Even as Peralta dismisses calls for him to resign, it’s unclear how much of a bargaining chip he may retain by perhaps factoring his resignation into any eventual deal, given that his term may be over soon anyway.
But while many St. Bernard officials and residents have given up urging him to step aside, simply waiting for either the courts or a fall election to decide his fate, that doesn’t mean the sentiment has waned.
“Most citizens in St. Bernard Parish want to see President Peralta resign,” said Parish Council member Guy McInnis, who is expected to run against Peralta in the fall. “That’s something that we are dealing with as a community right now.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.