Springdale officials face felonies for alleged traffic fine scheme
Springdale's police chief and city manager are facing felony charges for allegedly directing more than $33,000 in on-the-spot traffic fines from foreign tourists into city coffers instead of the courts.
Police Chief Kurt Alvin Wright and City Manager Richard "Rick" Wixom each are charged with one third-degree felony count of failure to keep and pay over public money.
The charges were filed Monday in St. George's 5th District Court. If convicted, each man could face up to five years in prison.
A judge also issued $5,000 arrest warrants for Wright and Wixom on Monday.
The charges, follow an investigation by the Utah Attorney General's Office, after a state audit uncovered the problem. The charges are specifically related to fines collected between February 2009 and October 2011, although interviews with current and former Springdale police officers, court personnel and city employees conducted as part of the investigation suggest the practice was in place as early as 2003.
Springdale sits at the south entrance to Zion National Park, and a bulk of the park's 2.8 million annual visitors pass through town.
Court records don't indicate whether Wright or Wixom have hired an attorney.
Both men deny the allegations in statements made to investigators, which are included in the probable cause statement filed with court papers.
Efforts to reach Wright and Wixom by The Salt Lake Tribune were unsuccessful Monday night .
Springdale's City Council held an emergency meeting on Monday in response to the charges, Councilwoman Louise Excell said. The council elected to allow both Wright and Wixom to continue to serve in their respective jobs while the case is adjudicated.
"The Town is firmly convinced that Mr. Wixom and Chief Wright had not criminal intention and that they believed the procedures they used had been approved by a local justice court judge," the council said in a prepared statement. "We are confident that no individuals, including the two persons charged, benefitted personally."
The statement calls Wright and Wixom "individuals of highest integrity," and acknowledges that it had worked to correct the "non-compliance" issues related to collection and remittance of fees and sought an independent audit to determine how much money should be reimbursed to the courts.
Under Utah law, officers must deliver copies of traffic citations to the court that has jurisdiction over the offenses. Bail or fines are collected by the courts and allocated to state and local entities.
The fines collected by Springdale officers should have been turned over to the Hurricane Justice Court.
Investigators say that under Wright and Wixom's direction, Springdale police officers collected on-the-spot cash fines from foreign tourists pulled over for suspected traffic violations. The money collected was placed in sealed envelopes and placed in a box outside the town treasurer's office, court papers state. The money was then deposited into Springdale's "fines and forfeitures" account, according to the documents.
One former officer told investigators she was "instructed and trained" in the practice by Wright when she was hired by the city in 2003. She also said Wright had explained that he had court permission to handle the citations this way because tourists routinely failed to pay the fines.
A second officer said he was encouraged by Wixom to collect the cash fines and was told the money offset the city's prosecution costs.
In 2009, a court administrator warned Wright against the improper practice, court papers say. The administrator told investigators Wright said the collection of cash fines was a "mistake." Wright gave a similar explanation two years later when a tourist complained about the cash fine in 2001.
"...he was defensive and told [the administrator] it was a one-time thing, a mistake, he would speak to the officer and the cash was accidentally deposited into the Springdale account," court papers say.
Investigators say Wright has denied training city officers to collect the cash fines and claimed the practice began while he was away on medical leave. Wright also told investigators that the decision to withhold the payments from the courts would have been Wixom's, court paper say.
Wixom denied authorizing the practice, which he told investigators was in place when he was hired in 2003. Court papers say he told investigators he questioned Wright about the practice but was assured the courts had approved the process.
The court denied granting that permission during the state auditor's inquiry and auditors found no documentation of any agreement.
The June 2012 audit found Springdale had been collecting cash bail and fines from tourists for years. Auditors also found that the city was not documenting all tickets or citations. The audit reviewed 423 citations issued over a 13-month period and found 138 were missing from police records.
The city has since paid the state $5,247.75 and paid $1,955.04 to the Hurricane Justice Court to cover the undocumented tickets written in 2011.