In early January, three candidates qualified for the March 25 election — Vanessa Waguespack Anseman, Candyce Gagnard Perret and Susan Theall.
The dynamic that existed at qualifying, however, has been shattered by information that has since come to public light.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Perret emerged with the backing of an array of business and political leaders from across Acadiana. Newspaper ads announcing her candidacy the week of qualifying trumpeted her endorsement by leaders from both chambers and parties in the Legislature, two district attorneys, a sheriff and community and business leaders across the region. Perret, it seemed, was on a path to victory.
Instead, Perret’s campaign drew public attention to a long-running federal investigation into the business practices of a company owned by her husband, Hunter, and reports of her 2004 arrest in Florida in which public records reveal that she identified herself as an assistant district attorney, a job she has never held. Those revelations wiped out the inevitability of her election nearly as quickly as it had emerged.
Theall, a former 15th JDC judge, decided to enter the race in December when it became apparent that no sitting judge would. It was Theall who first spoke publicly about the investigation into Hunter Perret’s Louisiana Specialty Institute at the Jan. 9 meeting of the Lafayette Trial Lawyers Association.
That was the same day Vanessa Anseman began taking steps to have her eligibility to practice law restored, after having walked away from the legal profession in 2012 to tend to her ailing father.
Anseman had her eligibility to practice restored on the final day qualifying was opened — Jan. 13.
Perret leads the money race with Anseman having nearly as much cash on hand after a late start, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. Theall trails badly in money but says she is confident that she will have enough money to run a media campaign in these final two weeks of the campaign to complement her relentless campaigning.
Here’s a quick synopsis of the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate:Vanessa Anseman. Anseman’s legal background is in maritime defense litigation. She worked in Jones Walker’s New Orleans office after graduating in the top 10 percent of her LSU Law School class in 2003. Following the post-Katrina flooding of her New Orleans home and a divorce, she relocated to Lafayette where she joined Liskow & Lewis.
Questions about Anseman’s eligibility to assume the seat arose when information from the Louisiana State Bar Association revealed that she was certified ineligible to practice law short of the 10 years of practice requirement set for appellate court judges in the Louisiana Constitution. Louisiana’s top legal ethicist, Loyola law professor Dane Ciolino, says he does not believe Anseman meets the eligibility requirement. On March 9, St. Landry Parish District Attorney Earl Taylor confirmed that he had filed a lawsuit challenging Anseman’s candidacy after receiving a complaint from attorney Verona Wiltz of Krotz Springs. The suit was set to be heard March 13 in 27th Judicial District Court, just as this issue was going to press.Candyce Perret. A Marksville native, Perret is a 1997 graduate of Loyola College of Law in New Orleans. Her legal career started in her home town where she became a city prosecutor. She later moved back to New Orleans and worked for the plaintiffs’ firm Gainsburgh Benjamin David for three years. She served as a clerk at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal in New Orleans for two years before moving her practice to the Opelousas firm of Morrow, Morrow, Ryan & Bassett in 2006 where she practiced until 2012.
According to a June 11, 2004, arrest report filed by the Walton County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office, Gagnard Perret listed her employment as “Assistant District Attorney.” It’s a position she has never held. Her campaign (and her then-fiancé John W. Houghtaling II) say she never told the arresting officers that was her job. Houghtaling says in a telephone interview (and in a letter to Gagnard Perret that he shared with this media group) the arrest report contained deliberately false statements. Houghtaling expressed remorse that he did not make good on his promise to sue the sheriff’s deputies for false arrest.
Gagnard Perret has served as The Perret Group’s general counsel since June 2013, just after legal questions about Hunter Perret’s LSI business practices first drew the attention of Louisiana courts. By that time, federal investigators were already looking into potential illegal activity involving altered medical reports, seven attorneys interviewed by the feds have told this news organization. She served as counsel and custodian of medical records for LSI in early 2014 and represented LSI physicians who were deposed in personal injury cases where defense attorneys raised questions about the care provided, the accuracy of medical reports and LSI’s billing practices. LSI is not part of The Perret Group, which Candyce and Hunter co-own. It predates their marriage.Susan Theall. Theall, who served for three years as judge in the 15th JDC’s Division M, is a family law specialist who has practiced for more than 30 years. The Lafayette native is a graduate of Northside High School, UL Lafayette and Loyola College of Law in New Orleans. Except for her tenure on the bench, Theall’s private practice has been established in Lafayette since 1992. She began her legal career in Opelousas after clerking for two judges in the 27th JDC there.
Theall says she got into the race in part to defend the integrity of her profession, saying she has been shocked by the legal community’s years of silence about the ongoing investigation into the Perrets’ business practices. Theall admits that she faces long odds getting into the race but believes events since qualifying have improved her chances.
Turnout is expected to be as low as emotions in the three campaigns are high. If no candidate garners a majority of the votes cast on March 25, the top two votegetters will be on the ballot for the April 29 runoff election.