A campaign ad being run by the Candyce Perret for Judge Committee was intended to call into question the qualifications of her opponent but instead may end up calling into question the behavior of the Perret campaign.
The Perret ad (view it here), which opponent Susan Theall has responded to on her campaign website, has a woman's voice alleging that in 2013 Theall, who was then serving as a family court judge in the 15th Judicial District (Acadia, Lafayette and Vermilion parishes), ignored "evidence of abuse to my children, or reports from their doctor, and awarded joint custody to their abuser."
The ad includes an image showing Theall's name. Typed above it is what appears to be the word "Stipulation."
The Independent was unable to locate the ad on Youtube or Perret's campaign Facebook page; we had to rely on a grainy image of it captured on a TV screen.
Here’s the TV transcript, which identifies the mother as “Sarah”:
When we left my abusive ex-husband I thought our nightmare had ended…then we walked into Susan Theall’s courtroom.
She refused to even look at the evidence of abuse to my children, or reports from their doctor, and awarded joint custody to their abuser.
The abuse continues to this day, and we live in fear because of Susan Theall.
She does not protect children and isn’t fit to ever be a judge again.
The radio ad is similar but makes the situation appear even more disturbing:
When I finally found the courage to leave my abusive ex-husband, I thought me and my children’s nightmare had ended
Then we walked into Susan Theall’s courtroom.
She refused to even look at the evidence of abuse to my children.
She didn’t want to be bothered with pictures of their bruises or written reports from their doctor.
Instead, Theall awarded joint custody to the man we thought we had escaped.
She wouldn’t even let me go back to our home to get my baby’s crib.
You cannot imagine the helpless feeling as a mother to have to send your children to their abuser every week as they cry and beg you not to go. As they tell you that if they weren’t alive, they wouldn’t have to go to their dad’s anymore.
We live in constant fear every day because of Susan Theall.
Several lawyers who saw the ad contacted The Independent last week, pointing out that stipulated cases indicate levels of agreement on the facts and remedies by the two parties involved. In this case, it was a divorce. A stipulated settlement would indicate that both parties agreed to the final settlement and to the custody arrangements.
Theall says the woman's ex-husband, who is identified in court records as a state trooper, came forward to her after hearing the spots.
This news organization made several attempts to independently verify from the Perret campaign that the woman in the radio and TV ad is indeed the ex-wife of that law enforcement officer.
We reached out to Perret campaign manager Marie Centanni on Friday via email, asking for a docket number so that the facts of the case could be reviewed. She did not respond. We followed up with a phone call to Centanni Monday, again requesting the docket number and asking if it matched the docket number of a divorce case Theall supporters say is the case in question. Centanni has not responded to either inquiry.
The Independent also called Perret campaign chair Mike Michot Monday regarding the ad. He has not yet responded.
Negative ads are not unusual in political campaigns and certainly not in judicial races. What makes the Perret campaign ad stand out is not only the serious nature of the allegations but that it comes directly from the candidate's campaign and not an independent third party, as is frequently the case in judicial campaigns.
Direct attacks by one judicial candidate on another are unusual and can expose the candidate making the claim to disciplinary action if the ads are not accurate.
Candidates for judge and their campaign committees are covered by the Code of Judicial Conduct. Canon 7(A)9 states that "A Judge Or Judicial Candidate Shall Refrain From Inappropriate Political and Campaign Activity."
That section of the Canon declares that a judicial candidate "shall not knowingly make, or cause to be made, a false statement concerning the identity, qualifications, present position, or other fact concerning the candidate or an opponent."
Theall, on her website, says the Perret campaign's statements about her in the ad are "a complete fabrication." Theall posted a redacted version of the stipulated agreement to protect the privacy of the parties because of the involvement of minor children.
If anything, the stipulated agreement, which the mother "willingly and voluntary" entered into, according to the court document, establishes that the mother got what she was asking for. "She was heard. She wasn't ignored. ... She expressed no objection," says Gay Babin, who represented the woman's ex-husband. Babin notes that the court record confirms Theall suggested a specific licensed psychologist to evaluate the parents and children and even agreed that the parties undergo a more in-depth evaluation called a Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, which helps psychologists diagnose mental health issues. "I even tried to make [the mother] pay for it, and Susan refused," Babin says, instead ordering the parties to share the cost.
The only hint of any allegation of child abuse would have to be deduced from the mother's request that neither parent be allowed to use corporal punishment on the children. Theall granted the request.
"If this family had/has bad problems, for that I am sympathetic, but I take issue with Perret’s egregious mischaracterization of my actions/responsibility as the Judge in this case," Theall writes on her website.
In the statement on her campaign website, Theall explains the events that transpired:
- Perret didn’t name the case, but the father of the children in this case came forward because the case is about him, too. The case was in Acadia Parish; I was the Judge assigned to the divorce filed in April 2013.
- The mother and father came to my courtroom once, and only once. It was for a Stipulation. That’s a voluntary agreement by the parties. No evidence is required or taken in a Stipulation.
- The parties came to my courtroom with their attorneys, and even the maternal grandmother. The parties stipulated to roughly 50/50 shared time with the children. At no time was there a hearing or trial to discuss abuse. Child abuse allegations are nowhere to be found in this case record.
- No allegations of child abuse were ever made to the Court – not while I was the Judge in this case, and not even after I left the bench in November 2014.
- In 2015 – long after I left the bench – the mother made an abuse allegation to DCFS (which is not the Court), and it was found to be unsubstantiated.
- To this day, the parties have never changed the Stipulation about their children’s schedule. But they have handled other court matters, such as community property.
In response to questions from The Independent, Theall's campaign committee on Monday afternoon issued a statement on what it called "the abuse commercial," saying "all remedies under law are being pursued."
The Judicial Campaign Oversight Committee of the Louisiana Supreme Court would be the authority with jurisdiction over the ad and its compliance or non-compliance with the Code of Judicial Conduct. The Independent has contacted the committee about any complaints regarding the content of ads in the current Third Circuit race.
Robert Gunn, community relations project coordinator for the Supreme Court, issued the following statement in response:
Pursuant to Section 5 of Supreme Court Rule XXXV, any complaints filed with the Committee shall be confidential until such time as the Committee decides to issue a public statement, the Committee or its Chair decides to dismiss the complaint, or the respondent waives confidentiality, whichever occurs sooner. There are no complaints to disclose regarding the Third Circuit race. We cannot comment regarding the existence (or not) of complaints simply filed that have not reached finality pursuant to Section 5 of Supreme Court Rule XXXV above.
Perret and Theall face each other in a runoff election on Saturday, April 29. The race is to fill the eight remaining years on the unexpired term created when Judge Jimmy Genovese gave up his seat after winning election to the Louisiana Supreme Court in the fall. There are eight parishes in the district: Acadia, Allen, Evangeline, Iberia, Lafayette, St. Landry, St. Martin and Vermilion.
Perret led Theall in the primary by fewer than 2,000 votes. Turnout in the district for the primary was 10 percent, according to the Louisiana Secretary of State.
Editorial Director Leslie Turk provided additional reporting on this story.