Theft of game hens could cost Ark. sheriff his job

JEANNIE NUSS - Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas prosecutor filed a petition Monday to remove a sheriff from office because he pleaded guilty to stealing Cornish game hens more than three decades ago.

Prosecuting Attorney Cody Hiland deemed the misdemeanor theft "an infamous crime," which he says bars Searcy County Sheriff Kenney Cassell from holding office.

Hiland points to part of the state Constitution that bars anyone convicted of "embezzlement of public money, bribery, forgery or other infamous crime" from holding office.

But Cassell contends his brush with the law doesn't qualify, and he refuses to resign.

"It was just a mistake that I made when I was 21," Cassell said. "I never denied it. I just took responsibility for it. I didn't try to sweep it under the rug."

In fact, he acknowledged the theft in his campaign for the sheriff's office. In a paid political ad in a local publication in 2009, Cassell said he broke the law and pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor crime, according to the petition filed recently by prosecutors.

Cassell pointed to that as a sign of his forthrightness. Hiland labeled it as an exhibit in his petition to have Cassell removed from office.

Another document says Cassell, then a deputy sheriff, and a colleague unlawfully possessed Cornish game hens that were being shipped from Springdale, Ark., to Maryland in 1979.

Cassell was charged with a felony for theft of interstate shipments by carrier, but that ended in a mistrial. He later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor version of the same crime. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and ordered to pay a $300 fine.

Cassell still doesn't contest the charge, but he said his guilty plea shouldn't stop him from holding office, since voters knew about it when they elected him last November.

"This is a very small county ... Everybody knew," he said. "It just wasn't an issue."

Hiland said it doesn't matter whether Cassell made his transgression public.

"This is not some youthful indiscretion," Hiland said. "He was a deputy sheriff in a position of authority and was convicted and pled guilty to theft."

Hiland's office started looking into the charge against Cassell after a law enforcement agency brought it to their attention a few months ago. Once he had the court documents to back up the charges, Hiland said he asked Cassell to step down.

Hiland contends the charge against Cassell could have an impact on trials if defense teams calls anything from the sheriff's office into question.

"State law requires me to proceed and remove folks from office who aren't qualified," he said. "We can't turn a blind eye to it."