It is highly likely Candyce Gagnard Perret will lead the primary Saturday in this short special election to fill the vacancy on the Third Circuit Court of Appeal. She could very well win a seat on the bench outright.
Acadiana voters seldom pay close attention to judicial races — one reason turnout in this primary is expected to be a dismal 20 percent or below. Her well-financed campaign (she raised more money than her two opponents combined) almost certainly assures her front-runner status.
And that should be troubling to every voter in District 3 of the Third Circuit, which encompasses Acadia, Allen, Evangeline, Lafayette, Iberia, St. Landry, St. Martin and Vermilion parishes.
Perret officially announced her candidacy on Jan. 9, just days after publishing a half page ad filled with the names of 140 “endorsements,” including many prominent elected officials and business leaders. Within no time it appeared that the candidate’s strategy was working. She and her campaign had gotten the word out to potential challengers that she was willing to spend whatever it took to get elected, and she scared off all but two opponents — Vanessa Anseman and Susan Theall, both fellow Republicans. No sitting judge entered the race.
The little-known candidate — even inside the legal community, many didn't know she was a practicing lawyer before this race — had emerged from nowhere.
And so, seemingly, did the headlines about her disconcerting past. Less than three months is insufficient time to fully vet a candidate for judge, which should be an intense process that scrutinizes credibility, judicial temperament and fairness. Any person who will ask voters to send her to the bench should be an open book.
Perret has been anything but. First, there is the issue of a federal investigation swirling around the business practices of her husband Hunter's company, Louisiana Specialty Institute, where she worked from 2013-2014 and possibly beyond. She ran the company for a time when her husband was undergoing cancer treatment and signed off on documents as custodian of medical records it in at least two court cases in 2014 — one of which years earlier got the attention of federal investigators, according to court records and seven local attorneys who have been interviewed by the feds over the past several years. Some of those sources have since said investigators, in follow-up interviews with them, are now inquiring about other Perret-related entities. The FBI would neither confirm nor deny the existence of such an investigation, and there is no way of determining whether indictments will be forthcoming. When confronted with the word of the local attorneys, all of whom talked to us on the condition of anonymity, the Perrets and their LSI attorney, Alan Breaud, told The IND that they have not been contacted by the feds — a plausible claim but certainly not one that precludes an investigation. It's a line the candidate continues to repeat to this day.
Then came news reports (first by The Daily Iberian) on her 2004 arrest for public nudity on a beach in Seaside, Fla. No big deal, nearly anyone could argue, but what is unsettling about the incident is that she told the arresting sheriff’s deputy that she was an assistant district attorney, a job she has never held (her work as a city prosecutor — again, not and ADA — predated the 2004 arrest by several years). Public records show that Perret, then 33 years old, was on the beach at 2 a.m. with her fiancé at the time, New Orleans attorney John Houghtaling II, and Judge Reggie Badeaux of the 22nd JDC in St. Tammany Parish (the latter’s identity later confirmed to us by Houghtaling).
Houghtaling now says that she was falsely arrested as revenge against him and has accused the arresting officers of fabricating evidence against her. His startling statement means that two security guards who first responded to complaints of noise on the beach and two sheriff’s deputies who backed them up and later made the arrest would all have been in on the setup. Houghtaling said in a March apology letter to Perret — 13 years later, just as she is running for judge — that he regretted not filing suit for false arrest (a decision that, curiously, could have easily been made and executed by Perret herself; she is, after all, an attorney). He said he’d only recently learned that the statute of limitations had expired, an odd claim for even a neophyte lawyer, let alone one with Houghtaling's experience.
For a March 10 story in The Daily Advertiser, Perret told the reporter that the deputy’s report was filled with errors:
She said she was among six people on the beach that night, one of whom — “not me” — went “skinny dipping” on the beach.
Candyce Perret has yet to take any responsibility for what happened on the beach that night and her arrest two days later, despite that she completed a pre-trial diversion program in order to avoid prosecution. And that is not the behavior any of us should accept from a candidate for judge.
Just last week, The IND learned that Houghtaling, who has now emerged as her biggest defender, had filed three lawsuits against her, one each in 2004, 2005 and 2006 — all of which, we were initially told by the courts, had been sealed (it's unclear when they were sealed). The IND, however, received from a source the July 2005 petition for a restraining order, in which Houghtaling spelled out in detail numerous instances of Perret stalking, harassing, intimidating and defaming him and his new girlfriend after he and Perret split up, a breakup that came only a few months after the beach incident. Once again, Perret and her campaign declined to respond to questions about the suit, choosing instead to let Houghtaling do the talking. “[It] was sealed because it was filed in the heat of the romantic moment and shortly after its filing, I deemed the filing inappropriate,” he responded to us in a written statement. So ask yourself whether it is ever appropriate for an officer of the court to file suit against another officer of the court and shortly thereafter deem it inappropriate. And we’ll remind that he sued her two other times. Were those inappropriate too?
The candidate’s inability to tell the truth was most recently revealed in false statements she made concerning the effort to unseal two lawsuits filed against her by Houghtaling in New Orleans in 2004 and 2006. Perret has in recent days misled voters by telling them she is not fighting The IND’s effort to unseal the cases, despite the fact that she had already emailed our attorney to notify him of her objections. On Thursday, two New Orleans attorneys representing both her and Houghtaling appeared in court beside our attorney, vowing to fight the effort and successfully winning a delay before Election Day. That these cases were sealed in the first place smacks of preferential treatment for these two attorneys — we know of no involvement of minors or similar rights to privacy that would justify the judges’ decisions.
Throughout this short vetting window, we cast a critical eye on each of the candidates, having been the first to question Vanessa Anseman’s eligibility (she has since been deemed eligible) and then following up with new details from TV station KLAF’s reporting on serious questions surrounding the financing of Susan Theall’s 2011 race for district judge (in which she appears to be at least partially in the clear due to the time that has elapsed). We have relied on official documents — the paper trail — in every story written on this campaign (with the exception of the federal probe of LSI, in which attorneys known to this news organization were willing to speak to us at length if we agreed not to publish their names).
What should give voters even more pause on this critical election eve is that Perret has been avoiding public settings in which she might be confronted with questions about not only her past behaviors and the implausible defenses she and her ex-fiancé concocted, but about the active federal investigation into the business practices of her husband.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeal is one of five circuit courts of appeal in Louisiana, and it is the largest — encompassing a territory of 21 parishes in southwest and central Louisiana. These circuit judges are revered members of government because we rely on them to judge the decisions of the lower courts. Their honesty and integrity are essential to maintaining public confidence in the entire court system.
So let’s make this crystal clear: A person who is seeking an appellate judgeship is refusing to show up for public forums and fighting this news organization’s efforts to inform the public about her past. What does Candyce Perret have to hide in those two lawsuits — might there be allegations supporting the 2005 suit, and is there evidence contradicting her and Houghtaling’s version of events on the Florida beach that night? Most important, what is out there that we don’t know about yet? We want you to ask yourself that before stepping into the voting booth Saturday. Hopefully, there will be a runoff, and we will have time to answer those questions and inform the electorate before April 29.
[Editor's Note: This story has been edited to reflect that The IND was unable to determine when the three New Orleans lawsuits were sealed.]