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Records show 200 animal transactions involving Lowry Park, president

Mayor Pam Iorio has asked the city attorney to draft an ethics ordinance for nonprofits.

Mayor Pam Iorio has asked the city attorney to draft an ethics ordinance for nonprofits.

TAMPA — Lowry Park Zoo gave an African grey parrot that typically sells for more than $1,000 to its president, Lex Salisbury.

The exchange, characterized as a "donation" by the taxpayer-supported zoo, was one of more than 200 transactions of animals back and forth involving Lowry and its president's private ventures, according to reports dating back to 2006 that the Times obtained Wednesday.

That total is much higher than previously reported and includes loans, sales, trades and gifts all involving Salisbury's private animal collections at his Pasco County ranch and his yet-to-open exotic animal park, Safari Wild in Polk County.

Tax forms that the zoo submitted to the Internal Revenue Service do not include most of the dealings.

Mayor Pam Iorio, meanwhile, told Tampa's City Council on Wednesday that "recent problems at Lowry Park Zoo" have prompted her to ask the city attorney to draft an ethics ordinance for nonprofits.

"In the city, it would never be permissible for an employee to start his or her own business that would conflict in any way with their primary taxpayer-funded job," Iorio said in a memo. "Nor is it acceptable for city assets to be moved to an employee's home."

The zoo acknowledged in September that its animals, like the land under them, are city assets.

Salisbury has told the Times that he has bought 21 animals at "fair market value" from the zoo during his career. But he never mentioned the ones he got for free.

On Wednesday, he did not return a message left by the Times.

Apart from the parrot, the zoo has donated two patas monkeys and eight helmeted guinea fowl to its president this year. Records show that animals are frequently transferred between the zoo and Salisbury's properties on loans and in trades, going both ways.

For example, just in the 2006-07 fiscal year, the zoo loaned a giraffe (which died), four white-tailed deer (which also died), three dwarf buffalo, an antelope and five bison to Salisbury.

In that same stretch of time — from Oct. 1, 2006, to Sept. 30, 2007 — the zoo also traded pygmy hippos with Safari Wild and received animals on loan from Salisbury, including an Arabian camel, a saddle-billed stork and a sarus crane.

The zoo is required to disclose on its tax forms the "sale, exchange or leasing of property," the lending of money, the extension of credit or the furnishing of goods to or by trustees, directors, key employees and others associated with the organization. It reported three such transactions to the IRS in the 2007 fiscal year but only one involved animals.

The tax filing said an officer purchased "equipment" from the zoo — "two common duikers and four waterbuckets."

Duikers are antelopes, and zoo transfer records show they were actually traded. The records also show that Salisbury purchased waterbuck antelope from the zoo that year. No mention is made of Safari Wild or of the other animal transfers that fiscal year.

Also omitted from the 2007 tax filings is an unwritten relationship between the zoo and its then-executive committee chairman, Bill Blanchard, in which he sells the zoo hay at a price under market value and has made his East Pasco ranch available to the zoo for animal training.

In a letter Blanchard wrote to the current chairman last week, he says that "in light of recent revelations, I think that it's time that all relationships with the zoo be subject to formalization and re-ratification."

He writes that for the past four to five years, this arrangement has existed without a written agreement, and he insists that he now wants everything in writing if the relationship is to continue.

According to an answer in its tax filings, the zoo has no written conflict of interest policy.

The mayor now wants the city attorney to draft an ordinance for tax-supported nonprofits outlining the city's expectations involving outside employment; business relationships between board members, employees and the nonprofit; and accountability of city assets.

In response to the mayor's memo, Lowry spokeswoman Rachel Nelson said the zoo staff has "a fiduciary responsibility and personal commitment to managing community assets."

Nonprofits such as the East Tampa Business and Civic Association already have written codes but say they don't object to the mayor's ordinance. Some City Council members, such as Joseph Caetano, welcome it.

"We need that protection," he said.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Records show 200 animal transactions involving Lowry Park, president 10/01/08 [Last modified: Sunday, October 5, 2008 10:03am]
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