The Independent took legal action Monday to have two Orleans Parish district judges unseal separate cases in which New Orleans attorney John W. Houghtaling II sought declaratory judgments against his former fiancée, Candyce Gagnard.
Gagnard has since married Lafayette businessman Hunter Perret, whose company, Louisiana Specialty Institute, is under federal investigation for his company's billing practices, multiple lawyers who have been interviewed by the FBI have told The IND on the condition that their names not be published.
Gagnard Perret and is a candidate for the Third Circuit Court of Appeal, along with Vanessa Anseman and Susan Theall.
IND Media attorney Gary McGoffin is directing the effort to unseal the cases, notifying both Houghtaling and Gagnard Perret Monday that motions had been filed. “We fax filed the motions to unseal the cases with the two judges Monday morning,” McGoffin says.
Houghtaling responded to McGoffin that he intends to oppose any efforts to unseal the two cases, which he originally had requested be sealed shortly after he filed the suits in 2004 and 2006.
Gagnard Perret also notified the paper the she will fight the motions. “I object to the consideration of unsealing these documents,” she wrote in a 3 p.m. email (marked with high importance) to McGoffin from her Perret Group email address. “You may serve my local attorney James Williams.”
A few hours later, however, the candidate denied that she, too, is seeking to block the paper’s efforts, according to four sources who heard her speak at a gathering Monday evening. Those sources tell The IND that Gagnard Perret said it is Houghtaling — not she — who is opposing the paper’s motions.
McGoffin has not been able to identify her "local attorney James Williams" in the Louisiana State Bar Association membership directory, which lists six different attorneys by the name of James Williams, none of whom are in Lafayette.
On Tuesday, McGoffin was able to confirm a hearing on the the 2006 suit with Judge Piper Griffin at 8:30 a.m. Thursday. A hearing on the 2004 suit before Judge Clare Jupiter is set for 9 a.m. that day.
McGoffin’s motions cite the “Louisiana Constitution, its Public Records law and the seminal case on these issues, Copeland v. Copeland [a divorce case involving Popeyes Fried Chicken founder Al Copeland].”
“Residents are both public persons in this proceeding as a product of their voluntary actions,” the motions read. “Candyce Gagnard (Perret) by virtue of her qualifying as a candidate for the Court of Appeal on January 11, 2017. John Houghtaling by virtue of his March 3, 2017 public response contesting the criminal arrest of this then fiancé, Candyce Gagnard Perret, in 2004.”
One suit was filed in October 2004, the other in February 2006. On Friday, The IND obtained a copy of a 2005 suit by Houghtaling and his then-girlfriend against Gagnard Perret in which the couple charged that they were being defamed, harassed, threatened and intimidated by Gagnard Perret. They sought an injunction against her to have her cease and desist those alleged acts.
All three suits were filed after Gagnard Perret’s June 2004 arrest for public indecency in Seaside, Fla. Public records from the incident reveal that she falsely claimed to the arresting officer that she was an assistant district attorney, a position she has never held.
In the 2005 lawsuit seeking the injunction, Houghtaling stated that he and Gagnard broke off their relationship not long after the Florida arrest.
Gagnard was in practice for herself at that time, according to Houghtaling and records from the Louisiana Secretary of State. Houghtaling told The IND in a March 3 phone interview that Gagnard did not work for his firm (Gauthier, Houghtaling) but that she rented office space from him and did some contract work for the firm.
In October 2004, according to Gagnard Perret’s LinkedIn account, she began working as a senior clerk for the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal in New Orleans. That same month, Houghtaling filed his first suit against Gagnard, one of the two suits the paper is seeking to have unsealed. The 2005 and 2006 suits also coincide with the time her LinkedIn profile says she worked at the Fourth Circuit. The Perret campaign has vouched for the accuracy of Candyce Perret’s LinkedIn work timeline.
ANSEMAN STAGES A COMEBACK
Vanessa Anseman is officially a candidate in the special election to fill a vacancy on the Third Circuit Court of Appeal after St. Landry Parish District Attorney Earl Taylor’s office dropped its challenge to her candidacy at the opening of her appeal Monday.
Assistant District Attorney Donald Richard, who argued successfully before Judge Alonzo Harris in Opelousas last week to have Anseman declared ineligible to run for the seat, told the en bank hearing of the Third Circuit Court of Appeal judges that a note from the Louisiana Supreme Court regarding Anseman’s compliance with Mandatory Continuing Legal Education credits made the eligibility issue moot.
On Friday, John Tarlton Olivier, clerk of the Louisiana Supreme Court, distributed a notice recalling the May 1, 2013, Notice of Ineligibility filed against Anseman for failure to meet her MCLE requirements. Olivier wrote for the court:
On May 1, 2013 a Notice of Ineligibility for noncompliance with MCLE requirements was issued certifying you as ineligible to practice law, effective May 31, 2013. You are hereby notified of the recall of that Notice. The courts of this state will be notified accordingly.
This Notice does not affect any other declaration of ineligibility that may have been issued by this Court.
Richard told the eight judges (four judges recused themselves from the hearing) in the Third Circuit Courthouse in Lake Charles that he had asked Olivier to send a copy of the letter to the judges on the panel. “If that is a true and accurate letter, then the theory of the state’s case fails, and I’ll move to dismiss the case,” Richard said. “There is no need to waste any more time on this.”
Richard explained that removal of that first certification of ineligibility meant that Anseman became a qualified candidate for the seat shortly after qualifying ended.
Judge Sylvia Cooks of Lafayette acted as the presiding judge after Chief Judge Ulysses Gene Thibodeaux recused himself. “The Supreme Court is the final arbiter on bar matters,” Cooks declared. The judges moved to recess, but not before Judge Billy Ezell asked Anseman if she had anything to say, “or, do you want to quit while you’re ahead?”
Anseman chose to speak, but only briefly.
The judges adjourned for less than five minutes and returned to announce that based on the Supreme Court Notice they were granting Richard’s motion to dismiss the case.
On the steps of the courthouse following the decision, Anseman declared that she was pleased with the decision to dismiss the case and vacate Judge Harris’ decision but lamented the uncertainty the case had created in the minds of voters during the week of early voting.
“The court has made clear that I am qualified to run for this position,” Anseman told reporters. “Make no mistake, this was political. Courts should not be used as a weapon wasting our taxpayers’ money to politically campaign against me.”
Anseman explained that the legal challenge diverted her from her campaign efforts.
“While I’ve been out of pocket writing briefs, arguing my case in court, I’ve been off the campaign trail,” Anseman said. “Never is that time more important than in an expedited, short-term special election like this one.”
Anseman said she was plunging back into campaign mode as soon as she left the courthouse.
In addition to Chief Judge Thibodeaux, other 3rd Circuit judges to recuse themselves from the case were John Saunders and Phyllis Keaty.
THEALL OFF THE HOOK?**
Kathleen Allen, head of the Louisiana Ethics Administration, took issue this week with candidate Susan Theall’s statements that administration staff provided her 2011 campaign promissory note models that she then used to memorialize loans from a Lafayette businessman to Theall’s campaign for the 15th JDC.
“Our office doesn’t have any model documents of that sort,” Allen tells The IND.
Allen had read The IND article published Friday regarding Theall’s loans and noted, as did her former mentor R. Gray Sexton, that “loans cannot exceed the contribution limits for the office the candidate is seeking.”
Theall personally borrowed at least $108,000 from Burton Zaunbrecher during her 2011 campaign. She then turned around and loaned that money to her campaign in her own name. The debt remained on her 2011 campaign account until 2014, when she executed a paper transaction converting the loans to contributions to her campaign in order to close the two campaign accounts.
Allen, however, confirms that there is a statute of limitations on campaign finance violations.
“There’s a three-year limit on campaign violations and a one-year limit if it’s on information contained in a report,” she says.
Theall, then, appears to be in the clear with the Campaign Finance Administration, as all of the transactions and reports relating to her 2011 campaign took place during periods that are outside the window where actions could have been brought against her.
It's unclear whether Theall might still face issues with the Code of Judicial Conduct. She was not a judge when she obtained the loans from Zaunbrecher, a former client of hers. As she explained to The IND in interviews at her office last week, “Candidates for judge are asked to sign a document saying that they will adhere to Canon 7 of the Code of Judicial Conduct.”
That segment of the Code prohibits judges and candidates for judge from directly soliciting campaign contributions. Theall maintains that she did not solicit "contributions," even though the loans were converted to campaign funds shortly after they were made.
[Editor's Note: This story has been edited to reflect that sources tell The IND Hunter Perret's company, LSI, is under federal investigation.]