The judge presiding over embattled St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta’s sexual battery case involving his ex-wife agreed Wednesday to move the trial out of the parish.
Retired Judge Frank Foil, who was appointed as an ad hoc judge to hear the case, granted the defense’s request for a change of venue during a brief hearing in 34th Judicial District Court. The change was not opposed by the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office, which is prosecuting the case.
In the mostly routine court appearance, Assistant Attorney General David Weilbaecher Jr. also revealed that Peralta is the focus of an “ongoing malfeasance investigation” by state law enforcement authorities, though he offered no details and declined further comment after the hearing.
That probe likely is tied to a search warrant that investigators executed in July at Peralta’s home and government offices. The warrant indicated that authorities believed they had evidence of witness intimidation, obstruction of justice and malfeasance in office by the first-term parish president.
Peralta appeared in court Wednesday, walking in and out of the building alongside Heather Bertucci, the daughter of Sharon Schaefer, his ex-wife who is at the center of the sexual battery charge. He was joined in court by three attorneys, including New Orleans criminal defense lawyer Martin Regan, who enrolled in the case Wednesday.
Peralta’s ongoing legal issues stem from an incident in October 2013 in which Schaefer, then his wife, has accused him of handcuffing, beating and raping her in their Meraux home. Peralta maintains that the couple engaged in “rough sex” that day at her request, but Schaefer has denied that assertion, saying the couple weren’t on speaking terms at the time.
In April, Peralta was indicted by a state grand jury 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, Peralta was indicted for a second time. A grand jury in St. Tammany Parish charged him with one count of felony stalking for allegedly harassing Schaefer. He posted a $35,000 bond on that charge.
Throughout the year, Peralta has resisted calls to resign, and he has said he plans to run for re-election next year.
In a court filing requesting the change of venue, Peralta’s attorneys argued that “pretrial publicity and local notoriety surrounding his case has been extensive and overwhelming, making it impossible for him to receive a fair and impartial trial in this parish.”
Foil said from the bench that he will decide on a location for the trial in the coming weeks. “It won’t be too far,” he said.
Also on Wednesday, Foil scheduled a hearing for Nov. 19 on two other pending court motions in the sexual battery case, including an effort from prosecutors to have Peralta’s bond increased or revoked.
The motion, filed after Peralta’s latest indictment, argues that the new accusations show Peralta’s “inability to follow the lawful orders of the court,” having allegedly violated a court-imposed stay-away order.
To bolster their argument, prosecutors allege in the filing that Schaefer received a package in September at an address in Jefferson Parish where she was briefly staying, and that the envelope bore Peralta’s Meraux home as its return address.
Though the filing does not disclose the envelope’s contents, its handwriting matches Peralta’s, prosecutors said, describing it as an example of “repeated violations of multiple protective orders” and a sign that Peralta “does not appreciate the serious implications of his actions.”
The motion states that Peralta’s “impaired judgment raises the possibility of dangerous irrational actions” against his ex-wife, himself or others, and suggests home confinement as an alternative to revoking his bond and sending him to jail.
Also slated for consideration at that November hearing is a motion filed by Peralta’s attorneys Wednesday asking Foil to rule that Schaefer is in contempt due to comments her attorney, Stephen Rue, made in an interview with WGNO-TV this month after filing a civil lawsuit against Peralta in state court in St. Bernard.
In the interview, Rue said that Schaefer “dreadfully fears” Peralta.
The lawsuit, filed last week, seeks more than $50,000 in damages. In it, Rue largely rehashes a litany of allegations against Peralta, including that he “raped, sexually battered and sexually assaulted” his now ex-wife on her 49th birthday and that he kept her handcuffed while beating her.
“For the rest of her life, every birthday that she has, she’ll be thinking of what David Peralta did to her,” Rue said in the interview.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.