Elephants in and out of the room dominate bar candidate forum

by Mike Stagg

Third Circuit Court of Appeal candidates Vanessa Anseman and Susan Theall field questions in Candyce Perret’s absence.

Third Circuit Court of Appeal candidates Vanessa Anseman, left, and Susan Theall participate in the Lafayette Parish Bar Association forum Friday. Candyce Perret, whose candidacy has been under fire in recent media reports, said she had a scheduling conflict, an excuse neither of her opponents was buying.
Photo by Robin May

The Lafayette Bar Association’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal candidate forum Friday was dominated by ethical questions based on provisions of Louisiana’s Code of Judicial Conduct, with one candidate claiming ownership of “the elephant in the room.”

The ethical and legal questions surrounding the one candidate not in the room, though, were also the focus of the questions, despite that they were never directly addressed during the one-hour forum.

Questions for the candidates were developed by members of the LBA’s forum committee. Moderator Scott Brazda began the questioning by focusing on Canon 2 of the Code, which reads: “A Judge Shall Avoid Impropriety and the Appearance of Impropriety in All Activities.”

“Recently, information reported by the media raised questions or concerns [about] your professional and/or personal conduct that may call into question your qualifications and/or fitness to serve as a judge,” Brazda said. “Can each of you respond to these questions or concerns to assure that you will adhere to the requirements of Canon 2?”

Vanessa Anseman
Photo by Robin May

Vanessa Anseman, who won a coin toss with Susan Theall, responded first, going directly to questions regarding her eligibility to run for the appellate court.

She said that her campaign has been the target of a series of unspecified complaints “by a friend of an opponent” about wording of some of her ads. Anseman then moved to the eligibility question, specifically whether she has the required 10 years of practice, that is now headed for a Monday court hearing in the 27th JDC in Opelousas.

“With respect to what we’ll call the elephant in the room, the piece that deals with misrepresenting qualifications, let’s talk about that,” Anseman said, launching into the constitutional history of what is now Article 5, Section 24 of the Louisiana Constitution.

“1921 is the last time that our constitution says that years of active practice are part of what qualifies someone to run for court of appeal,” Anseman told the group of about 40 people attending the forum. “Fast forward to 1974, there’s a complete overhaul of our constitution, and it is very clear that they changed the language from years of practice to when that candidate was admitted to the practice.”

Anseman was admitted to the bar on Oct. 10, 2003. “You get one and only one admission date unless you’re disbarred,” Anseman told the audience. “I have one and only one admission date to the bar.”

Anseman said the Legislature and voters amended the constitution again in 2006 at which time the length of time in practice was extended for appeals court judges to 10 years.

“There was actually an amendment by Rep. Hunter to go back to that old requirement based on years of practice, and it was shot down by the Legislature,” Anseman said.

Challenges to Anseman’s eligibility have been filed with district attorneys in the 15th and 27th judicial districts. 15th JDC D.A. Keith Stutes advised Anseman by letter earlier this week that he did not believe she was eligible to run and asked her to withdraw. Stutes took that action based on a call for action from candidate Susan Theall to his office on Monday, Feb. 27.

27th JDC DA Earl Taylor filed a formal petition in district court in Opelousas Thursday asking the court there to decide Anseman’s eligibility. A hearing has been set for Monday, March 13, in Judge Alonzo Harris’ court for arguments on the matter.

Theall declared that Canon 2 of the code is “perhaps the most important” Canon in the code.

Susan Theall
Photo by Robin May

“It talks about integrity,” Theall said. “Canon 2 is intended to ask the judges to foster respect for our system of justice. And so it is why we are held to a higher standard. It’s why we look at things like character, and we look at things like impartiality.”

“I can tell you absolutely that in my 31 years of practice I’ve done nothing that I’m ashamed of,” Theall continued. “I’ve done nothing that I’ve been arrested for. And, I’ve done everything that I can to be a good lawyer and, when I was a judge, I did everything that I could to be a good judge.

“I take very seriously the trust placed in judges to foster respect for our system of justice,” Theall continued. “There are too many people in the general public who simply don’t understand how this system works. Too many people in the general public continue to believe that a lawyer can influence a judge, or that someone can call a judge to get a favor. And, that really doesn’t happen. We need to make sure as judges and as candidates that we exhibit exemplary standards of conduct so that the general public will trust in our system.”

The lone candidate not present, Candyce Gagnard Perret, was arrested in June, 2004, in Walton County, Florida, for indecent exposure (she was naked on a beach, according to police reports). The charge was dropped a year later after she completed a pre-trial diversion program. In the arrest report, Perret, who was not married at the time, allegedly told the arresting officers that she was an assistant district attorney, a position she has never held. Her campaign has denied that she ever made that statement, as did her then-fiance, New Orleans attorney John W. Houghtaling II, who was with her and two other couples during the incident and at the time of her arrest.

The IND has also reported that there is an ongoing federal investigation into Louisiana Specialty Institute, a company owned by the candidate’s husband, Hunter Perret. One lawyer contacted by federal investigators has since told The IND that the investigation has expanded into other Perret-controlled businesses.

Candyce Perret did not participate in the event, her campaign contends, because it could not resolve a long-standing scheduling conflict with the event.

LBA Executive Director Jo Abshire told The IND in a telephone interview Thursday that Perret’s campaign had sent a photo and biographical material for inclusion in promotional materials for the event, but pointed out the scheduling conflict at that time.

Perret’s campaign manager, Marie Centanni, responded to The IND's email question on Thursday about Perret’s decision not to participate in the LBA forum.

“We have not withdrawn from any forums,” Centanni wrote. “Unfortunately due to time constraints and scheduling conflicts, we have been unable to commit to any forums to date. The campaign supports efforts like this to inform the public about the importance of this race. Candyce Perret is focused on personally interacting with as many voters as possible in the eight parishes voting in this quick special election.”

When asked about Perret’s absence after the forum, neither Anseman nor Theall were buying that explanation.

“I took part in this forum because I believe it’s important to let attorneys hear you directly,” Theall said. “I looked forward to this event because it gave them the opportunity to do a side-by-side comparison of the candidates.”

Theall said she believes forums of this type are an effective way to encounter larger numbers of voters, contradicting the Perret campaign’s reason for not participating.

“I’m not frustrated by [Perret’s] absence from this event and other forums, but voters should be,” Theall told The IND.

Anseman unloaded on Perret, linking the candidate’s absence directly to the stories and reports that have been published about her.

“It’s frustrating that she’s speaking through proxies,” Anseman said. “She will not admit or deny personally any of the allegations, any of the records out there that you have put in print, that other media outlets have put in print. So, to keep dodging it under the guise of ‘oh, it’s a short campaign’ is nonsensical.”

Anseman said she had been told by audience members that Perret was spotted waving signs on Johnston Street earlier in the day.

“If in fact, you got the story wrong and she’s not under investigation by the feds with LSI and, if in fact, she didn’t lie and say she was an ADA in Orleans; if in fact, she did not intimidate those police officers, then she just missed an opportunity to clarify,” Anseman continued. “To my knowledge, she has not done that. She’s using other people to tell her story. It is a bit frustrating.”

Early voting for the March 25 primary election in the eight-parish district begins tomorrow (Saturday) and continues through March 18.