Residents of a small southwestern Missouri town are without any police after their two officers were charged with forging traffic citations and submitting false reports that helped the town avoid paying tens of thousands of dollars to the state.
An attorney for the city of Lanagan — population 419 in McDonald County — said Thursday that the allegations may stem from mere mistakes or misunderstandings about how to properly document traffic tickets.
Records show that Lanagan Police Chief Larry Marsh, 52, was indicted last week on three counts of forgery for writing citations referencing a non-existent Missouri statute last August, September and October. He also was indicted on two forgery counts for submitting false information to the state attorney general's office in 2009 and 2010 in mandatory reports detailing the town's annual traffic stops.
Lanagan police officer Michael Gallahue, 37, also was indicted on two forgery counts alleging he wrote citations referencing a non-existent state statute last August and October.
Marsh and an employee at city hall both referred questions Thursday to city attorney William Weber. He said the police officers are scheduled to be arraigned June 18 and have been suspended without pay while the town takes applications for temporary replacements. Weber said the officers have not yet hired their own attorneys and he doubts they had any intention of fraud.
"It's very possible that this is just a mistake on the officers' part," Weber said.
The indictment says the officers issued traffic citations for violations of state law "307.000." McDonald County Prosecutor Jonathan Pierce said that although Chapter 307 outlines "vehicle equipment regulations," there is no "307.000" and citations must list the specific statute that was violated — such as 307.040, which governs the use of headlights.
"It's not simply a technical error by writing a mistaken number," Pierce said.
The forgery charges all are felonies punishable by up to seven years in prison.
The indictments were publicized Thursday by state Auditor Tom Schweich, who raised concerns about Lanagan's finances in an audit released last November and shared information with the local prosecuting attorney.
The audit said the Lanagan police chief had improperly reported traffic stops on Missouri Highway 59 as occurring on a city street. The auditor estimated that allowed the town to avoid paying more than $36,000 to the state under a law that limits that percentage of a town's general operating revenues that can come from traffic tickets issued on state and federal highways.
The Lanagan Police Department reported to the state attorney general's office that all 1,216 of its traffic stops in 2010 — and all 556 traffic stops in 2009 — occurred on city streets.
But the audit said it reviewed 555 tickets issued from January through June 2010 and found that just four that were issued on city streets. Auditors said 543 of those tickets were issued on Missouri Highway 59 (also called Main Street as it passes through town) or on state Highway EE.
The town's Board of Alderman said in a written response included with the audit that it was not aware of the money owed to the state and "will attempt to remedy the situation." It also said that all traffic stops will be properly reported in the future.
Weber said Thursday that the city lacks the money to immediately pay the state but intends to do so.