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If city manager, police chief are found not guilty, Utah town will pay their lawyers

Published May 8, 2013 7:17 pm

Springdale • Charges stem from audit saying police targeted tourists.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The town of Springdale is almost doubling what it plans to spend on legal fees in case its city manager and police chief are acquitted of felonies.

For now, Springdale City Manager Richard "Rick" Wixom and Police Chief Kurt Wright are paying for their own legal defense. But Mayor Pat Cluff said Tuesday the city will reimburse them if they are not convicted.

And that would be fine with Cluff.

"We have faith in these people," Cluff said. "We consider that there hasn't been any wrongdoing. There may have been mistakes, but no wrongdoing at all."

In February, Utah Attorney General John Swallow charged Wixom and Wright each with a third-degree felony count of failure to keep and pay over public money. The crime is punishable by up to five years in prison.

The charges stem from a state audit that found Springdale police officers stopped foreign tourists for offenses and offer to let them pay their fine on the spot. Springdale sits outside Zion National Park, which receives 2.8 million annual visitors. Court papers say more than $33,000 was steered to city coffers rather than the local justice court.

While the criminal charges against Wixom and Wright do not allege they pocketed any money, the audit found money was unaccounted for.

Springdale leaders have supported Wixom and Wright, pointing out there's no evidence they benefited financially from the ticketing practice.

A proposed budget for fiscal year 2014 was published in advance of a City Council hearing Wednesday tonight. The documents shows Springdale plans to spend $110,200 on legal fees.

Springdale had budgeted $60,200 on legal fees in the current fiscal year but instead has thus far spent $92,741. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

David Church, an attorney for Utah League of Cities and Towns, said if Wixom and Wright are acquitted, state law allows them to sue Springdale to recoup their legal fees.

That happened in Eagle Mountain after former Mayor Brian Olsen was acquitted of misusing public funds in 2008. Olsen sued the city for his legal fees. The Provo Daily Herald reported Olsen and Eagle Mountain settled the case by paying Olsen $100,412 for court costs.

Church said he knows Wixom and Wright and likes them both.

"It would be totally out of character for both of them to commit any crime," Church said.

Cluff said if Wixon and Wright are convicted, the city will retain the balance of the budgeted legal fees.

Wixom and Wright continue to work at their respective jobs pending trial. A preliminary hearing is scheduled June 19 for both defendants in 5th District Court in St. George.

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle