Feds spend hours at St. Bernard government complex _lowres

St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta

Available for work: 62-year-old lifelong St. Bernard Parish resident with extensive experience in law enforcement and local government. Led a metropolitan area of 45,000 residents in the throes of recovering from a devastating hurricane. Managed nearly $200 million in capital projects that either began or were finished on his watch. Looking to secure another position in the public sector.

Four years after beating an incumbent by a few hundred votes, embattled St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta found himself near the back of the pack in last month’s seven-way primary, winning just 3 percent of the vote.

Now, ousted after one term that’s winding down, Peralta will be looking for a new gig. He’s got experience, but he comes with baggage, including pending criminal charges in three jurisdictions and a nearly $118,000 civil lawsuit against him that’s set for trial early next year.

Peralta maintains that his legal issues never interfered with his responsibilities as parish president. His critics — and there are many — say he’s given a black eye to a recovering parish that already found itself the butt of occasional jokes by its neighbors.

In the end, Peralta won 359 votes out of 10,802 cast — perhaps the lowest haul for an area incumbent in memory, but about what many had expected.

“I always figured he was going to have about that,” said former Councilman Tony “Ricky” Melerine, who finished fourth in the primary. “A lot of people said they can’t believe he got 300-something votes. Well, he does have family and friends that were going to vote for him.”

To political observers, the message was clear. “Basically, voters told him he’s finished,” said Ed Chervenak, head of the UNO Survey Research Center, which collects information about public opinion on economic and political issues. “The guy was just totally radioactive.”

For his part, Peralta — a former New Orleans police sergeant and St. Bernard Sheriff’s Office major — seems to be taking it all in stride.

“Listen, it’s been a great four years; it really has,” he said. “Take out the personal issues that were there, that part of it, but I don’t blame the office for that. I blame my former wife.”

He added: “From a personal level, Sharon got what she wanted. This is exactly what she strove for from the very beginning: to ruin me. That’s what she’s done, and until I clear my name, I’ve got to deal with all of this.”

In August, Peralta was charged in a 22-count indictment that includes allegations of malfeasance in office and abuse of power.

His other legal problems largely stem from the bitter breakup of his marriage, dating back to an October 2013 incident in which his then-wife, Sharon Schaefer, accused him of handcuffing, beating and raping her in their Meraux home. Peralta maintained that the couple engaged in “rough sex” that day at her request; Schaefer denies that claim.

Peralta has no doubt that the very public split cost him re-election. He said he believed until the final weeks that he had a shot at making the runoff.

At this point, Peralta hasn’t endorsed either of the two remaining candidates — Parish Council veterans Wayne Landry and Guy McInnis — and doesn’t sound as if he will. In fact, after the past two years, he sounds almost surprised that anyone is willing to subject himself to the sometimes-intense scrutiny that goes with the president’s job.

“It’s not easy to have your life kind of put on hold, and you have little to no privacy,” he said, “but people are still willing to do it.”

Though he doesn’t have a job lined up once his term ends in two months, Peralta said he won’t step down early and will help with his successor’s transition. It’s clear he still harbors some resentment about how his predecessor, former President Craig Taffaro, left his post early to accept a position in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration.

Still, Peralta hedged slightly. If a prospective employer forced his hand by insisting he start work immediately, he would at least have to consider it, he said. “I’m not actively going out looking for a job right now,” he said. “I would prefer to serve out my term. That would be my choice. Could that change? Anything can happen.”

In the meantime, Peralta already has voted for Saturday’s runoff. He played coy about his choice. “They have a lot of like experiences,” he said of McInnis and Landry. “I don’t think that there’s a whole lot of difference between either Guy or Wayne.”

Peralta also wouldn’t state his choice for state attorney general, though he has long blamed his legal troubles on the incumbent, Buddy Caldwell, who is locked in a runoff race with Jeff Landry, a former congressman from New Iberia.

Despite his overwhelming primary loss, Peralta said he remains busy with his day-to-day duties as parish leader. A handful of parish officials said they hadn’t heard anything suggesting otherwise, though some noted they had been preoccupied with their own campaigns.

Peralta didn’t turn up to deliver his regular president’s report at the Parish Council’s meeting earlier this month, although several council members also were absent. And in recent news releases touting ribbon-cuttings at the Old Arabi Marketplace and Bonnie’s Pet Grooming, Peralta’s No. 2, Michael Gorbaty, was front and center, apparently in his stead.

With the benefit of hindsight, Peralta said, if he had known how things would turn out, he wouldn’t have run in the first place. He said the steady stream of news reports about his legal woes was “insurmountable” as he sought a second term.

If it had just been the first indictment — a sexual battery charge that was handed up in April 2014 but was later dismissed ahead of a looming trial date — Peralta believes he would have had a clearer path to re-election.

“People could relate to the personal issues — bad divorce,” he said. “So many people have been divorced. Let’s face it: Most divorces are bad. You don’t have too many good divorces, so I think people understood and I don’t think that was a big issue.”

As it is, Peralta still faces criminal charges in three jurisdictions; he’s fighting all of them in court. He’s also involved in a civil lawsuit in Orleans Parish. In that case, businessman Sidney Torres IV claims that Peralta owes his company, SDT Productions, nearly $118,000 for campaign commercials produced for Peralta’s run for office four years ago. Peralta has previously listed that figure as an outstanding debt on his campaign finance reports.

“Our position is that we don’t care where the money comes from,” said Torres’ attorney, John Litchfield. “We really don’t care as long as it is paid.”

In the meantime, Peralta plans to look for another job, likely in government, since he’s only about a month shy of having his pension vested, making him eligible for more generous benefits.

He’s open to almost anything, he said, rattling off a few potential areas where he could be useful, such as urban planning, recreation or community development.

“I will tell you this: I’m 200 percent sure that I don’t think I will ever seek political office again,” he said. “I really don’t think so. Assume everything comes out clean and I am cleared on everything — would I put my family through this again? I don’t think so.”