Friday, May 20, 2011

TOP STORY > >Alderman case will likely be dismissed

Leader staff writer

Beebe Alderman Les Cossey was told in court Wednesday that if he doesn’t break any more laws within the next year, the case against him will be dismissed.

Cossey was arrested for stealing an opponent’s campaign signs on Election Day in November a few hours before the polls opened.

“Glad it’s over with,” Cossey told The Leader. “It’s time for another election.”

Cabot District Judge Joe O’Bryan, appointed as special judge, ruled without hearing from witnesses after Les Ablondi, the special prosecutor, presented his argument against a guilty verdict.

Cossey is 67 years old and has never been in trouble before, Ablondi said. And while Cossey didn’t deserve special treatment, normal treatment would be to give him a chance to show that it would never happen again and then dismiss charges.

There were also other reasons to dismiss charges, the prosecutor said. Cossey is in bad health and takes medication for memory loss. Mayor Mike Robertson and Police Chief Wayne Ballew said he appeared confused the evening the signs were stolen. A neurologist had said his medicine could have caused confusion.

Cossey was so confused, Ablondi said, that he tried to get into the car with Renee Gordon, the person who caught him with the signs. He thought she was his wife.

But his medicine is regulated and he is better now.

There was also a question about who owned the signs that Cossey had hidden inside his coat when police arrived. Ablondi said they were likely the property of the person whose yard they were in, not the candidate who put them there.

The owner of the home from which the signs were taken didn’t even fill out a police report, he said.

Although audiences at trials usually aren’t allowed to speak, Gordon, who came upon Cossey hiding her husband’s campaign signs under his coat at about 10:40 p.m. the evening before the election, spoke up. “They’re my signs,” she told Ablondi.

Gordon, who said later that she had been subpoenaed for the case but not interviewed, went into the hallway to speak with the prosecutor and came back angry.

“He’s going to get off,” she said.

Cossey’s attorney Jim Petty reiterated the prosecutor’s argument and added that a conviction could affect Cossey’s position on the council.

Cossey easily won the election to retain his Ward 3 Position 2 seat on the Beebe City Council with 863 votes to Jonathan Gordon’s 427 and James Ringbolt’s 155.

But an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling together with Article 5 of the Arkansas Constitution seem to indicate he would have been ousted from his council seat if he had been convicted.

Article 5 of the Constitution says in part that no person convicted of an infamous crime shall be “capable of holding any office of trust or profit in this state.”

And in October, the Supreme Court ruled that stealing campaign signs constitutes an “infamous crime.”

The high court ruling upheld a ruling by Sebastian County Circuit Judge Michael Fitzhugh who said in September that Greenwood Mayor Kenneth Edwards, convicted in 2009 of stealing three signs opposing a tax extension that he supported, was not eligible to run for mayor again because he had been convicted of an infamous crime.

The Supreme Court also ordered the Election Commission to not count any votes cast for Edwards.

Ablondi interjected that he was not concerned with Cossey’s position on the council.

“It’s not a crystal clear case but the fact that he’s on the council has nothing to do with it,” Ablondi said.

Two sheriff’s deputies and one Beebe police officer were in court to testify. After Renee Gordon called the Beebe police, officers called in the sheriff’s department to avoid a conflict of interest.

Speaking after court, Gordon said she found it odd that investigating the theft was a conflict of interest for the city, but it wasn’t a conflict of interest for the mayor and police chief to say Cossey appeared confused.

She didn’t know Cossey well, Gordon said, but he didn’t seem confused to her as he came at her inside her car demanding to know, “Where are my signs? Where are my signs?

Gordon had a copy of a barely legible statement that Cossey wrote for police when he was arrested that appeared to say he was out that evening checking on his signs, which is the same thing Gordon was doing.

If Cossey had been confused, he wouldn’t have been able to campaign outside the polling site in the rain all the next day, Gordon said.

“Nobody is going to be happy no matter what happens,” Ablondi said of the outcome of the case.

Cossey left smiling while Gordon was visibly shaken by the ruling.