Springdale police chief, town manager charged over tourist traffic fines

Posted at 5:25 PM, Feb 11, 2013
and last updated 2013-02-11 19:28:44-05

SPRINGDALE, Utah -- Felony charges have been leveled against the town manager and police chief over how this tiny town collected money from foreign tourists in traffic stops.

Springdale Town Manager Rick Wixom and Police Chief Kurt Wright were both charged in St. George's 5th District Court on Monday with failure to keep and pay over public monies, a third-degree felony. The two are accused of not handing over more than $33,000 in cash bail collected to the Hurricane Justice Court.

According to charging documents obtained by FOX 13, former officers said they would collect cash bail from foreign tourists during traffic stops. The money would then go into the Springdale town coffers, and not the justice court according to law.

"Another Springdale officer indicated that he was encouraged by Springdale Town Manager Richard 'Rick' Wixom to collect what they could for the cash bail citations," the Utah Attorney General's Office said in a probable cause statement filed with the charges. "This officer stated that during a meeting Wixom showed the officer formulas and breakdowns of the town's budget and told the officer that the cash bail offset the prosecution costs of the town."

At Springdale's city hall on Monday, town officials would not make Wixom or Wright available for comment. Springdale Mayor Pro-Tem Kathy LaFave told FOX 13 she was stunned by the charges.

"There were concerns over how tickets were being issued. We looked at our internal policy, we corrected anything that they asked us to correct," she said. "So I'm surprised. I am very surprised at this point that charges have been filed at all."

With over 3 million visitors through Springdale headed to Zion National Park and surrounding areas, the community receives a large number of foreign visitors. If cited, it is common for many to not return to the United States to deal with a simple traffic ticket and the fine will go unpaid.

"One understands that some locales may try and work in a way that is convenient to their visitors. Tourists come in, it's not always convenient for people who come in, happen to get a traffic ticket or some other charge to come back, reappear in court, contest their case," said Scott Reed, deputy Utah Attorney General.

"They try to make arrangements for them to expedite the process if all they want to confess to the violation and forfeit bail. But I think there's a limit to the amount of convenience that we can generate if there's a risk for due process or some other kind of assurances that the government is acting properly."

Reed said investigators believe there may have been a "rounding up" or "rounding down" with the fee amounts as a matter of convenience, something a judge may have objected to.

An audit conducted by the state of Utah last year discovered the problem with the traffic tickets, which they claimed were not being remitted to the Hurricane Justice Court, which has jurisdiction over Springdale. Prosecutors did not allege in charging documents that anyone pocketed any money. The town council insisted no money was unaccounted for.

"We investigated any accusations or claims that other officers may have been involved and we didn't find any sufficient evidence to charge anybody," Reed said.

Springdale's Town Council met in a closed-door emergency session for several hours on Monday to discuss the criminal charges leveled by the Utah Attorney General's Office. Afterward, council members spoke to FOX 13 about it.

In a joint statement issued by the council, they said the town "regrets the state's decision to file third-degree felony charges."

"The town acknowledges that proper procedures for the collection and remittance of fines from traffic citations were not followed in certain limited instances," the statement read. "However, upon recently learning of its non-compliance, the Town immediately sought to determine monies to be reimbursed to the state and the local justice court, and has begun an independent audit to determine a full amount for future reimbursement."

LaFave told FOX 13 that both Wixom and Wright would remain on the job with full authority and compensation, pending the outcome of the state's case.

Both men are expected to surrender to authorities to be booked into jail and released pending a future court appearance. Attorneys listed for the two men did not return calls seeking comment.