March 2, 2017 03:35 PM

The former district judge entered the 3rd Circuit race fully appreciating she faces very improbable odds.

[Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in a three-part series on the Republican women seeking a seat on the Third Circuit Court of Appeal in the March 25 special election. Read the first installment on the candidacy of Candyce Perret here and that of Vanessa Anseman here.]

W
hen friends question Susan Theall’s decision to enter the race for the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal — she is one of three Republican women vying for the seat — she frequently sends them Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” quote:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
The former 15th JDC Family Court judge decided to enter the race after one of her former colleagues, Judge John Trahan of Crowley, decided not to run to fill the unexpired term of Judge Jimmy Genovese. Genovese was elected to the Louisiana Supreme Court in November.
Photo by Robin May

“I had told Judge Trahan that I was going to support him,” Theall tells The IND, “but asked that if he decided not to run to please let me know.”

She says Trahan called her in mid-December to tell her that he had decided not to run.

Trahan, who declined to comment for this story, has served as Division A judge since 1996. In consultation with his brother Pat (banker and Lafayette Downtown Development Authority chair), Judge Trahan took a long look at the race, meeting with a media consultant who told him the campaign would need to raise $400,000 for the primary campaign, according to a source close to the judge who helped him work through the process of making a decision.

At that point, word was already out that Candyce Gagnard Perret was going to be running to fill Genovese’s unexpired term. Our source also says Candyce and Hunter Perret met with Trahan to confirm Candyce’s candidacy and told the judge they were prepared to spend more than half-a-million dollars to win the seat. Trahan's "no party" status would certainly have been a factor in the race, and our source further assets that Trahan just didn’t have the appetite for the kind of politics that have come to define Louisiana judicial races in recent years.

Theall, on the other hand, isn’t deterred by the Perrets’ ability to raise loads of money, nor is she hesitant to speak publicly about the ongoing investigation into their business practices. In fact, Theall says her decision to run has become as much a response to Perret’s candidacy as her own desire to serve as an appellate court judge.

“I began telling lawyers that I was going to run. And, almost to a person, the response was ‘well, good, because I don’t know who this woman [Perret] is,’” Theall says.

Theall, who had just gotten her family law practice re-established following a stinging re-election bid loss to Charlie Fitzgerald in 2014, used the Lafayette Bar Association’s 2016 Christmas Party to begin telling a larger circle of friends and associates that she would be a candidate for the open circuit seat.

“I would go up to lawyers and say, ‘Hey, I’m running for Jimmy Genovese’s seat,’ and they basically responded favorably,” Theall says. But, those comments were sometimes accompanied by words delivered in hushed tones. “‘But, you know, there’s a company that’s under federal investigation.’ And I’d say, ‘What are you talking about?’ And the response was ‘Oh, I can’t talk about it.’ I must have heard that seven or eight times that night.”

Things changed quickly in early 2017, when Theall realized that the whispers of a federal investigation were related to Louisiana Specialty Institute, a company owned by Hunter Perret. “On the Friday after New Year’s, I met with a lawyer who provided me with the trial transcript from the Narcisse case in the 16th JDC,” Theall recalls. The attorney also provided Theall with 15th JDC Judge Kristian Earle’s 2013 ruling in the Stelly case that had been introduced as evidence in the Narcisse case. In the Stelly case, Judge Earles disallowed hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical invoices from LSI because the company was not the actual provider of the services. (Both cases were reported on extensively in the Perret profile as part of this series on the candidates.)
Photo by Robin May

“I have to say I was dumbfounded and concerned because it felt wrong, and it felt like something bad was going on,” Theall explains. “I thought that if someone is under investigation — and if that’s the truth — then it should become known.”

Theall was already scheduled to speak about her candidacy at the Jan. 9 meeting of the Lafayette Trial Lawyers Association. Over the weekend prior to that Monday meeting, Theall says she decided to use that occasion to talk publicly about what she’d found in the Narcisse case transcript and in the Stelly case ruling.

That trial transcript showed that Candyce Perret acted as custodian of medical records for her husband’s company, LSI, for a period in which Hunter Perret testified that she also served as legal counsel for the firm. It is a period that corresponds with a time when Hunter was being treated for cancer.

“I’m thinking to myself, wait a minute. A doctor in this case just testified that he believed his medical records were altered, and she’s records custodian. What’s wrong with this picture,” Theall asks rhetorically. “To me, it just smelled funny.”

At the trial lawyers’ meeting, Theall describes the group as “mildly interested” in her talk until she got to the point where she said she wanted to address “the elephant in the room.”

“I said that I was very concerned about the candidacy of Mrs. Perret because of what I’ve learned looking at the trial transcript,” Theall recalls. Theall says she had read the Narcisse trial transcript and documents several times over the preceding weekend and taken notes. “It was a five or 10 minutes synopsis, and the room went stone cold silent.”

After that talk, Theall says she began hearing from plaintiff and defense attorneys offering up more information about LSI, Candyce Perret and other Perret companies (since The IND’s initial report, one of the seven attorneys interviewed by the FBI, all of whom asked to remain anonymous, has said investigators are now looking into other Perret-owned companies).

Theall’s discussion of the Perrets at the trial lawyers’ meeting is consistent with her reputation for being aggressive, according to some of her legal colleagues. One Lafayette attorney with judicial experience, who would only agree to speak with the paper anonymously, says that Theall has a reputation for “not playing nice with others.”

“There is an unwritten code among attorneys that we don’t engage in personal attacks, that the cases are about the law and not personal,” the attorney tells The Independent. “Susan frequently crossed that line,” the attorney adds without elaborating.


T
heall, who has been a Board Certified Family Law Specialist since 1995, has been practicing law for 31 years. She clerked for two judges in the 27th JDC in Opelousas before going into private practice there. For a year, now Justice Jimmy Genovese was a partner in a three-principle firm that included Donald Hebert and Theall. She moved her practice to her hometown of Lafayette in 1992.

Family law has been a passion of Theall’s as well as the center of her practice. She opened the Paula K. Woodruff Family Law Section of the Lafayette Parish Bar Association in honor of one of her former colleagues. After she was elected to the unexpired term of Judge Phyllis Keaty’s Division M seat (after Keaty was elected to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal) in 2011, Theall worked to have the Louisiana Supreme Court designate Division M as a Family Court seat for the district.

Some attorneys interviewed for this story believe Theall’s focus on family court matters limited her experience on the bench. They point to the fact that jury trials are not part of family court proceedings and that Theall has had only limited experience with criminal cases dating back to the period prior to the state Supreme Court making Division M exclusively a family court seat.

Theall, though, had earned the respect of her peers on the 15th JDC during her tenure there. She was elected chief judge of the district by the judges and assumed the role in 2014, the year in which she was defeated by Fitzgerald.

Theall says the family court docket is among the largest in the 15th JDC. She maintains that she and her staff worked diligently to clear the docket, often contacting attorneys to ensure that they intended to attend scheduled hearings and other proceedings to ensure that the docket was not needlessly cluttered with items that would not be addressed on a particular day.

Her service on the bench, however, did come with some amount of controversy, as one process Theall created to reward attorneys who came to her court prepared grated on attorneys and raised questions of fairness among some of them.

While a judge, Theall says she created a “Gold Star Program” as something of a lark. “I was in Hobby Lobby one day and saw these beautiful glass gold star ornaments and thought that I could use these to reward attorneys who came to court prepared to handle their business,” Theall says. “I bought four or five of them and gave them to a few lawyers, who were prepared, who did their briefs, who didn’t interrupt each other in the courtroom. ... I wanted to motivate them without resorting to criticizing them in front of their clients.”

Whatever her intent, the practice gave the appearance that Theall was providing favorable treatment to some attorneys, a practice that rattled the clients of some attorneys since judges in that court decide all cases. There are no jury trials.

Theall now admits that the Gold Star idea was rife with unintended consequences. “In retrospect, there are a lot of lawyers who did not like that. It started out as something of a joke that got blown out of proportion,” Theall recalls. “I was told that I was favoring some lawyers. My response was that I was trying to motivate lawyers to do the right thing. I thought it was a fun way to motivate them, but apparently not.”

Contact Mike Stagg at mikestagg@mikestagg.us.


In the End, Money Talks

Susan Theall trails her opponents, Candyce Perret and Vanessa Anseman, in fundraising, according to campaign finance reports filed by the candidates on Feb. 23. The election is Saturday, March 25.

Perret leads the money race, having taken in just over $102,000 since her initial campaign finance report showed she had raised $100,000 in December 2016. That fundraising includes $58,000 Perret loaned her campaign. As of Feb. 13, Perret’s campaign committee — chaired by former state Sen. Mike Michot, who is now a lobbyist for The Picard Group — had $93,116 on hand.

Candidates Theall and Anseman at a March 6 Concerned Citizens for Good Government forum at Alesi's.
Photo by Robin May

Anseman’s committee raised $71,145 by Feb. 13. The committee, chaired by state Rep. Nancy Landry, reported spending $18,467 of that money and entered the final month of the campaign with $52,678 on hand.

Records show that Theall is far behind in fundraising. Her committee, chaired by Ville Platte businessman Cecil Fuselier, reported raising $35,088, of which $23,572 came via a loan from Theall to her campaign. The committee spent $11,583 prior to Feb. 13 ($233 more than it took in via actual contributions) and heads into the final month of the campaign with $23,338.47 on hand.

Theall says that she is not daunted by the fundraising imbalance. “I’ve never been the best funded candidate in any race that I’ve run.,” she says, stressing that she is campaigning relentlessly across the eight-parish district. The Division B seat covers Acadia, Allen, Evangeline, Iberia, Lafayette, St. Landry, St. Martin and Vermilion parishes.

Theall is not confining her efforts to the campaign trail. The Monday before Mardi Gras, Theall hand-delivered a letter to 15th Judicial District Attorney Keith Stutes calling on him to investigate Anseman’s eligibility to run for the 3rd Circuit seat. Theall cites stories published by The IND last week, which used information obtained from the Louisiana State Bar Association to show that Anseman does not appear to meet the 10-year minimum practice requirement for eligibility to run for an appellate court position.

Theall cites as precedent a 2014 disqualification of a judicial candidate in the 16th JDC who did not have the minimum practice requirement to run for a district judgeship. That candidate, Carolyn Deal, was disqualified for not meeting the requirement, although the specifics of her case are different from Anseman’s. While Anseman was admitted to the bar more than a decade ago, she was certified ineligible to practice law on May 31, 2013, before she met the 10-year requirement for seeking a circuit seat; she argues that the ineligibility period should be counted toward the 10-year requirement. The Deal case was appealed and upheld by the 3rd Circuit and the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Stutes has not returned calls for comment on whether he will take any action on Theall’s letter.

Should Anseman be disqualified, her name would remain on the ballot but votes cast in support of her would not be counted. The race would become a two-candidate race between Theall and Perret.

Most legal observers believe that Theall is on firm legal ground, but some suggest that the letter to Stutes might not pay off politically, because in a two-candidate race the winner will be elected in the March 25 primary. Those observers doubt that Theall can overcome Perret’s money advantage in the remaining weeks, despite the legal cloud hanging over the Perrets’ businesses enterprises.

ICYMI:

Introducing The Current