St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta has a dim view of the latest round of criminal charges that were filed against him last week, marking the fourth time he’s been indicted in the past 16 months.
But even as Peralta, 61, blames his mounting legal issues on a vendetta by a power-hungry state Attorney General’s Office, he admits that the 22 counts outlined in the Aug. 4 indictment aren’t entirely without merit.
“Not across the board,” he said, pausing before adding, “They’re meritless in the sense that it wasn’t a criminal act.”
But Peralta, in an interview Thursday, acknowledged that he did do some of the things that Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office is now charging him with as crimes, although he defended his actions in each case and contended that the charges are trumped up.
The latest indictment, handed up Tuesday by a state grand jury in Chalmette, outlines a series of new allegations against the first-term parish leader, including 11 counts of malfeasance and six counts of abuse of office.
Caldwell’s office claims Peralta’s latest crimes spanned nearly two years and continued until last month, when he is accused of obtaining a list of parish employees’ addresses and then using the list to solicit campaign donations from them.
“They took a bunch of ridiculous ethics charges and turned them into criminal cases,” Peralta said. “That’s OK. I’ll have my day in court.”
For example, prosecutors allege that in a three-month span last year, Peralta abused his power by asking a parish employee, Melissa O’Neil, to scour the Internet using a parish computer to find an address for Peralta’s ex-wife, Sharon Schaefer, and then asking O’Neil to drive by the home to see if Schaefer’s car was there.
That’s half-true, Peralta said. He asked O’Neil to track down the address because he’s not computer-savvy, he said, adding that he wanted Schaefer’s address so he could serve her a subpoena, not stalk her.
The address they found wasn’t the right one, he added.
“I never stalked my ex-wife,” he said. “I didn’t know where she lived. I didn’t know her phone number, nor did I want to know her phone number. But did I look for an address to have her served with a subpoena three times for two different lawsuits and a court case? Absolutely.”
From his view, Peralta is now charged with a crime for asking “an employee to look something up on a computer.”
“I am not that computer-literate,” he said. “It was not even a good address, and we couldn’t serve her. What’s the criminal violation there? I’m sorry, I don’t see it.”
As for asking O’Neil to drive by the house and scope it out? That was her idea, he claimed.
“It was right near where her daughter was in a swimming competition, and she told me, ‘I’ll be glad to drive by and see if I can see the car,’ ” Peralta said in the interview. “I didn’t ask her. She actually volunteered.”
And what about the new stalking charge he’s facing?
“I don’t care if I ever lay eyes on my ex-wife again,” he said. “I certainly don’t want to see her. I certainly don’t want to talk to her. She has hurt so many people with this.”
Prosecutors also alleged that Peralta committed malfeasance of office by accepting a loan from Richard Perniciaro, whose Jefferson Parish technology services firm, ParaTech LLC, has had a contract with the parish.
For months, Peralta and the Parish Council have been feuding over Peralta’s refusal to end the controversial 2014 deal. The seven-member council last month took steps to try to force Peralta’s hand, including barring the firm’s employees from parish buildings.
Peralta responded by filing a lawsuit against six of the council’s seven members, alleging they had “unlawfully and illegally” attempted to end the contract. He filed it as “a matter of principle,” he said last week.
On Thursday, Peralta denied taking money from ParaTech. “Wrong, wrong, wrong,” he said.
But he acknowledged accepting a $3,000 loan from Perniciaro.
At the time, Peralta said, he was in a jam: He needed the cash to post bond after he was indicted — though he couldn’t remember which time — and was unable to withdraw cash from his bank account.
“He’s a friend,” Peralta said of Perniciaro. “Other people have never gone to a friend and asked, ‘Can you tide me over? Can you lend me some money until I can get to my bank and get the money?’ ”
Peralta said he returned the money two days later.
“I thought that was so ludicrous,” he said of the resulting criminal charge.
Prosecutors further claim that Peralta abused his power by asking St. Bernard’s human resources director, Jessica Snyder, to provide him with a roster of addresses of parish employees, which he later used to solicit contributions for his re-election bid this fall. That brought on two more malfeasance charges: one for soliciting from classified employees and another covering unclassified employees.
Did he do it? “Absolutely, I’ve solicited campaign contributions,” Peralta said without hesitation. “I’m running for office.”
But he said he received money from only one employee — whom he did not name but noted that the employee has contributed to him in the past.
In the interview, Peralta acknowledged using the list of employees to try to drum up campaign contributions, but he defended doing so, saying other parish presidents have done the same thing.
“There’s nothing wrong; there’s nothing illegal about that,” he said, adding that he didn’t use parish supplies like paper, stamps or envelopes to send out the mailings.
Despite the indictment, Peralta contends that his actions were on the right side of state law, which prohibits a state or city official from using his position to solicit campaign contributions.
In Peralta’s view, his actions were OK because “St. Bernard is neither a city nor a state,” adding that he obtained an attorney’s opinion that backs his reasoning.
After the Parish Council unanimously passed a resolution last week calling on Peralta to step down, the Friday deadline the council set came and went without any change.
That’s because Peralta claims he’s being targeted by Caldwell, the attorney general, for political reasons.
His latest indictment is retaliation, he said, for a federal lawsuit he filed contending that Caldwell’s office relied on false testimony to obtain a grand jury indictment against him in April 2014 on a sexual battery charge. The charge was later dropped.
“Because I sued them, because I didn’t buckle under, that’s exactly why they’re going after me,” Peralta said. “I’ve taken an aggressive step in dragging them into court — federal court — and I’ve filed complaints against them. I think it’s become personal.”
Peralta has been in and out of court repeatedly since Schaefer, then his wife, accused him of handcuffing, beating and raping her in their Meraux home in October 2013. He insists that the couple occasionally engaged in “rough sex” and that he was fulfilling his wife’s “rape fantasy.” Schaefer has denied asking her husband to “rape” her as part of a sexual game; she has said they weren’t even speaking at the time.
Before last week, Peralta already faced pending charges of stalking, perjury and filing false public records. He said Caldwell’s office is piling on as much as possible until something finally sticks.
In Peralta’s mind, one thing is certain: He’s not stepping down.
“That’s not an option,” he said. “I took this job. I gave an oath that I would do this job. I continue to do this job, no matter what they do to me.”
For one thing, resigning would be “almost an admission of guilt,” he said.
But with his term — and likely his tenure as parish president — due to end in a few months, Peralta is taking stock of his future job prospects.
A former New Orleans police sergeant and a major with the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office, Peralta would like to get back into law enforcement — his “true love,” he said. But even though he expects to be cleared of all charges, he can’t imagine finding a job in the field in light of his legal baggage.
He blames Caldwell’s office for his predicament. Between legal fees, paying bonds and supporting his family, Peralta said, he’s financially strapped.
“What has this done to my future? I don’t have any skills, and thanks to them, I don’t have any assets anymore, because I’m broke,” he said. “I’m broke. The little bit of money I had left was blown this week with even more lawyer fees and more bonds. It’s gone. It is literally gone.”
For now, he still has a job — but he said he’s not hanging onto it just for the steady paycheck. Instead, he’s staying put because he refuses to abandon his post before his term is up.
“If I was going to resign, I would’ve resigned a long time ago,” he said. “Maybe it’s a corny thing to feel, but I made a promise. I made a promise, and I’ve still got things that I can do. I’ve got a lot of projects on the table.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.