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Former Lowry Park Zoo chief still says he did no wrong

TAMPA — Lex Salisbury is still speaking out against his accusers, even though the former Lowry Park Zoo director agreed last week to pay back some of the money a city of Tampa audit concluded he used for personal affairs.

His attorney, Robert McKee, released a statement Monday in which Salisbury maintains that the audit, commissioned by Mayor Pam Iorio to investigate his private dealings, was a "get Lex" campaign.

"I believe that the final resolution of this dispute supports the absence of any wrongdoing on my part," Salisbury said in the statement. "I am pleased that the (Lowry) board of directors has finally realized that the 'findings' contained in the audit would not have withstood the scrutiny they would have been subjected to in a court of law."

The 60-page audit, released in December at the height of a St. Petersburg Times investigation, listed deals Salisbury facilitated between the zoo and his private ventures — his yet-to-open Polk county animal park Safari Wild and his Pasco county ranch. He engaged in transactions involving more than 200 animals, buying, loaning and trading some, and getting others as outright gifts.

Salisbury began working for the Lowry Park Zoo two decades ago, when it was one of the worst in the nation. Many credit him with making it one of the best. But his very public downfall jeopardized the zoo's national accreditation, which was suspended and then restored three months after Salisbury resigned.

He continues to hold that any deals he made was to help the zoo, not to enrich himself.

Though the audit concluded he owed the zoo more than $200,000, a compromise with its board of directors reduced that tab to $2,212. The parties arrived at that total by taking into account $48,644 Salisbury felt the zoo owed him for boarding animals at his private properties.

Salisbury conceded to a $50,856 debt, which included boarding for his own animals at the zoo, sales tax in a feed sale with the zoo, a vehicle trade, a bonus he took, his wife's travel on a business trip and a three-day layover in Paris he took on the zoo's dime. It also includes the return of fences, a horse barn, a primate barn and a shade structure the zoo constructed on Safari Wild.

This week, Salisbury is expected to write a check for $2,212, the difference between those claims. He also will give up a baby pygmy hippo on display at the zoo.

At the end of his statement, Salisbury said he looks forward to completing and opening Safari Wild.

Salisbury's attorney said his office had not been contacted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is investigating the audit's claims. He dismisses the case's validity.

"That's not going anywhere," McKee said. "It'll die on the vine."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Former Lowry Park Zoo chief still says he did no wrong 08/24/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 24, 2009 9:19pm]
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