TAMPA — Following months of questions about his private dealings with Lowry Park Zoo, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has temporarily revoked zoo executive director Lex Salisbury's membership in the organization.
The association also has suspended the membership of Larry Kilmar, the zoo's director of collections, and the zoo itself.
In September, Salisbury asked the AZA, a national accrediting agency, to inspect records of his personal dealings with the taxpayer-funded zoo.
The transactions have involved more than 200 animals. The deals include loans, trades, sales and outright gifts for Salisbury's 50-acre Pasco County ranch and Safari Wild, his for-profit exotic animal park in Polk County.
Salisbury has maintained he never profited from the zoo.
But a special announcement on the AZA's Web site says its board voted by a two=thirds majority to suspend the memberships of Salisbury, Killmar and the zoo pending a final hearing at a board meeting in Oklahoma City in March.
The announcement says Salisbury "led the Lowry Park Zoo in its decisions to intentionally refuse to abide by AZA's acquisition and disposition policy and in its decisions not to participate fully in the AZA's Species Survival Plan (SSP) Programs. The zoo's non-compliance was exacerbated because many of the animal transactions were conducted with entities owned by Mr. Salisbury."
The AZA also raps Killmar for similar infractions and criticizes the zoo's board for not enforcing association standards.
Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the AZA, said membership suspensions are rare.
"It does not happen often. Through our regular accreditation and ethics process, there are actions that are taken from time to time. It's less frequent that the board takes direct action," said Feldman.
He said it appears the zoo is taking the board's actions very seriously.
"They have expressed their intention to work hard to address the issues identified in our report," he said.
Salisbury has been on a paid leave of absence from his $271,000 a year job since October while the AZA and the city of Tampa complete audits of the transactions.
Mayor Pam Iorio said she would withhold comment until the city audit is released later this week.
The city holds the lease on the zoo's property, which gives it ownership of all of its animals and their offspring. The city also contributes about $450,000 to zoo operations.
Santiago Corrada, the city's neighborhood services administrator and a member of the zoo's executive board, says the zoo's standing with the AZA is more of a concern than Salisbury's or Killmar's.
The city's lease and operating agreement requires the zoo to care for the animals according to professional standards.
It's up to the zoo's executive board to decide if Salisbury can keep his job, but executive board chairman Bob Merritt said city officials will likely play a role in the decisionmaking.
"Suffice it to say, the city has influence. We don't operate in a vacuum," he said.
The board's next meeting is later this month, and Salisbury's continued employment may be on the agenda.
City Council member Charlie Miranda, who serves on the zoo board, said city auditors briefed him on the results Monday.
"When it's released, it will shed light on what's been happening at the zoo and allow us to make an intelligent decision," he said. "To be fair … I'm not going to have a comment until Friday when it's in final form."
Roger Strout, the city's internal audit director, said he finished his field work with the zoo last week and is trying to meet with Salisbury to review the results.
"That's part of our protocol when we're doing an audit," Strout said. "We meet with the auditee and go over the issues and get their responses."
City Council member Tom Scott said he has not been briefed on the audit, but he doubts Salisbury will be able to continue as zoo director.
"I don't see him surviving," Scott said. "There's too much of a cloud over him."
Staff writers Alexandra Zayas, Justin George and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] and (813) 226-3401.