Peralta facing possible contempt of court charge

Judge to decide whether St. Bernard Parish president violated restraining order

St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta faces a fine of up to $1,000 or even six months in jail if a state judge finds him in contempt of court during a hearing Monday to determine whether he violated a restraining order by allegedly emailing his ex-wife.

But some legal observers doubt the first-term parish leader will go to jail for any length of time in the flap.

In court filings, Sharon Schaefer has accused Peralta of continuing to “harass and threaten” her in recent months in emails sent “from various addresses” and in online posts on the website nola.com.

Judge Michael Kirby, who is handling the case for the 34th Judicial District Court in Chalmette, earlier had signed off on an agreement reached by the couple’s attorneys — after they both filed for restraining orders — stipulating that neither Peralta nor Schaefer would contact the other in person, by telephone or electronically, and that neither would threaten the other.

Kirby finalized a divorce between the two last month.

The high-profile, often bitter divorce proceedings have played out in public for much of the past year.

Schaefer accused her ex-husband in October of handcuffing, beating and raping her in their Meraux home. Peralta maintains the couple engaged in “rough sex” on her 49th birthday at her request, but Schaefer has denied that assertion, saying the couple weren’t even on speaking terms at the time of the alleged rape.

Peralta was indicted by a parish grand jury in April on a charge of sexual battery in connection with the incident. He pleaded not guilty at an arraignment last month.

In the latest court filings, Schaefer alleged Peralta broke the no-contact agreement. She included 17 pages of emails in the court record and said the exchanges have caused her “significant distress, fear and anxiety.”

Almost all of the emails were sent from America Online accounts, including one address that Peralta has previously used to email reporters.

“First of all, I hope you are doing well,” begins a June 13 email with the subject line “Dumplin,” signed “Dave.”

It continues, “As you know the six months of our separation is nearing. I have only one question. Is there any reason that I should not move forward with the divorce? Please think this over and please at least show me the courtesy of giving me an answer.”

Another email followed just a few hours later. “Well I guess by your lack of response I got my answer. All the best dumplin,” it reads, signing off with, “I will always love you.”

Some of the messages filed in the court record were more harsh, including name-calling and threats of publicly disclosing information about alleged inconsistencies in Schaefer’s divorce paperwork.

It’s not clear whether the emails were actually sent by Peralta. He has declined comment on the matter, citing a gag order issued in the wake of his indictment.

Legal observers with experience in divorce proceedings expect the judge, if he is convinced that Peralta sent the emails, will likely take into consideration the potential harm inflicted by the messages in considering whether to punish him.

“Part of what a court needs to do is to make sure the order seems real by enforcing it, and so it becomes a very individualized decision about what this party will take seriously,” said Tulane Law School professor Tania Tetlow, a former prosecutor who heads the school’s Domestic Violence Clinic. “For some people, that’s money. For some people, that’s jail.”

Tetlow doesn’t expect that Peralta’s public position will factor into the judge’s decision on punishment.

“I think the judge will try very hard to rule the way he would in any case, although that becomes difficult to put out of your mind,” she said. “It puts the spotlight on the ruling one way or the other.”

Monday’s hearing will largely hinge on Schaefer presenting evidence that she alleges shows her ex-husband sent the emails himself, not someone else using his computer. “That may be obvious from the context of the emails, or Mr. Peralta may admit that they were from him and try to claim that they don’t matter,” Tetlow said.

Peralta, however, has maintained in recent months that he has not spoken with his ex-wife. His attorney, Stephen London, declined comment last week, citing the gag order.

Attorney Jill Craft, of Baton Rouge, said that in her experience, judges in such circumstances typically award court costs and fines as a penalty. “It’s rare that they actually incarcerate somebody for violating a court order, but they are going to take some action if they feel they need to make sure that it does not get repeated in the future,” she said.

Meanwhile, investigators with the state Attorney General’s Office executed a search warrant last month at Peralta’s Meraux home and his government office.

A three-page search warrant for the St. Bernard government complex suggested that authorities believe they have evidence of witness intimidation, obstruction of justice and malfeasance in office, though it gave no details.

The warrant gave investigators authority to seize computers, electronic storage devices and cellphones capable of sending email, as well as any email communications and documents pertaining to Schaefer.

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.