SPRINGDALE -- The police chief and town manager in this southern Utah town known as the gateway to Zion National Park face felony charges for allegedly mishandling traffic fines from foreign drivers visiting the park.
The officials channeled more than $33,000 in on-the-spot traffic fines from foreign tourists into city coffers instead of the courts, according to the Utah attorney general's office. Springdale Police Chief Kurt Wright and Town Manager Richard Wixom both face a third-degree felony count of "failure to keep and pay over public money."
Court documents show that town police side-stepped protocol by collecting cash bail from foreign drivers visiting nearby Zion National Park. Officials told town employees to deposit the money into a town account.
Court documents show that the town began operating the scheme in 2006. Between February 2009 and October 2011, the town collected more than $33,000.
The town of Springdale released a statement saying Wixom and Wright will keep their jobs for the remainder of the investigation. The town acknowledged the mishandling of fines but denounced the charges against the officials, saying that they are men of "highest integrity" with a strong record of public service.
The town council said Wixom and Wright believed that the procedures they used had been approved by a local judge.
In June, Utah authorities found that local police targeted foreigners visiting Zion National Park to settle their driving infractions in cash. The practice is illegal, state auditors said. The investigation followed a complaint from a Spanish tourist who protested that she was ordered to pay a traffic ticket immediately.
In summer, auditors said that 138 traffic citations Springdale police issued from a larger book of tickets in 2011 were missing, along with an unknown amount of cash.
Springdale's town council estimates that about 3 million visitors pass through Springdale on their way to Zion National Park each year.