As he faced a seven-way primary in his bid for a second term, embattled St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta didn’t shy away from tapping his campaign war chest to help cover his mounting legal fees — a legally questionable practice.
Despite the long odds he faced, Peralta raised at least $1,300 in recent contributions, according to his latest campaign finance report covering Sept. 15 to Oct. 4. He spent about $6,081, leaving him almost $7,990 in the bank as the Oct. 24 primary approached.
As in previous reports, Peralta’s biggest expenditure went toward his mounting legal woes: a $2,500 payment to high-profile Loyola University law professor Dane Ciolino.
The Sept. 28 payment was listed as being for “expert witness fee (in) ethics case,” according to the report, which was filed Oct. 8.
Ciolino’s bit part in Peralta’s spiraling legal woes involved testifying as an expert witness on behalf of the first-term parish leader in St. Tammany Parish.
Peralta, who faces pending criminal charges in three separate jurisdictions, finished fifth in the primary, capturing 3 percent of the vote. Former Parish Councilman Wayne Landry led with 32 percent, while current Councilman Guy McInnis had 27 percent. They will square off in the Nov. 21 runoff.
In court filings, Peralta has blamed his legal issues on state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office, which he alleges is in cahoots with Landry. Ciolino was hired by Peralta’s criminal defense attorney, Martin Regan, to testify about professional conduct laws as Regan sought to get state prosecutors recused from the case.
During the hearing in 22nd Judicial District Court in Covington, however, Ciolino noted that the law doesn’t allow lawyers to file frivolous lawsuits seeking to remove specific prosecutors from cases.
Judge Scott Gardner rejected Regan’s motion to remove Caldwell’s office from the case.
Peralta has run into legal trouble in the past over his use of campaign funds. In July, a grand jury in Baton Rouge handed up a six-count indictment charging him with three counts of perjury and three counts of filing false public records. Prosecutors alleged that he used ATMs nearly two dozen times at Gulf Coast casinos to withdraw about $7,900 from his campaign war chest and then gambled with the cash.
The state Campaign Finance Disclosure Act stipulates that “campaign funds may not be used for any personal use unrelated to a political campaign or the holding of public office. Campaign funds may not be used to pay a fine for penalties imposed pursuant to the Code of Governmental Ethics.”
However, some legal experts and other watchdogs acknowledge that guidelines from the state Board of Ethics allow candidates some wiggle room in how they choose to spend campaign money.
In his previous spending report, filed a month before the primary, Peralta reported raising $38,800 and spending about $26,029, including about $10,750 that went to Regan for various legal services.
Using campaign funds to pay legal fees “tends to be more allowed when it’s related to the politics and the holding of the office, but it becomes less justifiable the more it becomes a personal behavior or a potential criminal behavior-type activity,” said Robert Travis Scott, head of the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council.
Peralta’s case is not the first time a state official has used campaign money to help pay for his legal defense.
In 2012, the Ethics Board issued a declaratory opinion in the case of Ouachita Parish Sheriff Royce Toney, who was indicted on allegations that he used his office computer to access the email account of an employee and retaliated against the employee by initiating an internal affairs probe.
Toney sought to use his campaign funds to help cover his legal bills tied to the federal indictment, but the Ethics Board — by a 5-2 vote — ruled he could not.
“The actions taken (in) this particular case were not related to the holding of Sheriff Toney’s public office,” the board’s opinion stated. “Therefore, the expenditure of campaign funds on legal fees, based on the facts of this case and the timing of this request, is not permitted.”
In an interview, Peralta defended using his campaign account to pay his legal expenses on the grounds that getting Caldwell’s office off the case was essential to his eventual success in various other courtroom battles.
“They’ve gone after my campaign reports, and they’ve charged me with things like malfeasance, and it is political; it is pertaining to my role in office,” he said. “You can’t link it to one specific case; it links to all of them. All of the cases are intertwined, and you have to attack the attorney general on all counts.”
Ciolino said in an interview that he was compensated for his services but did not know where the money came from.
“I got paid from Martin Regan,” he said, “and I imagine that he got reimbursed from Peralta. That’s all I know.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.