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Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo and former president Lex Salisbury negotiate a financial settlement

TAMPA — The Lowry Park Zoo and its former president Lex Salisbury officially cut ties Friday, resolving the outstanding financial claims laid out in a city of Tampa audit that concluded Salisbury used zoo animals, materials and employees for his personal enrichment.

In the December audit, Salisbury's tab exceeded $200,000. But after this final agreement, Salisbury will have to pay only $2,212.

Why the steep difference?

Salisbury had his own claims, too.

In December, after the St. Petersburg Times investigated transfers of assets Salisbury made between the zoo, his yet-to-open Polk County animal park called Safari Wild and his ranch residence in Pasco County, the city of Tampa added up the private deals in a 60-page audit.

Salisbury had engaged in transactions involving more than 200 animals with the zoo, buying, loaning, trading and getting some as outright gifts.

The zoo had paid to construct fences, a horse barn, a primate barn and shade structures on Safari Wild property. Also, Salisbury had given himself a bonus and charged the zoo for a three-day layover in Paris after a business trip.

"Fundamentally," auditors wrote, "Mr. Salisbury appeared to treat the operation at Lowry Park Zoo, his for-profit venture Safari Wild and his residence ranch as one."

Salisbury resigned later that month, but through his attorney continued to refute the allegations that he used the zoo for his personal benefit. He maintained that he was helping the zoo all along, offering his land for boarding free of charge. Now, it was his turn to tally.

Salisbury is expected to release a statement Monday, through his attorney Robert McKee.

His attorney presented the zoo with a $48,644 tab for boarding the zoo animals he had at his Pasco ranch and Safari Wild.

Such points of contention could have led to expensive litigation, said zoo board member Bob Rasmussen.

"After evaluating the amounts in controversy, the relative legal merit of the claims, the disruptive effect on the Zoological Society and the cost of litigation — which could easily exceed $200,000 — we believed it was not in the best interest of the Zoological Society to litigate," he said.

The two sides compared tallies. The zoo said Salisbury owed:

• $2,556 in boarding.

• $627 for sales tax paid by the zoo on feed sales to Safari Wild.

• $5,772 as additional consideration for the 1963 Mercedes Unimog motor vehicle Safari Wild acquired from the zoo in exchange for a used mower.

• $6,942 for the additional bonus paid to Salisbury in 2008.

• $1,359 for the cost of his wife accompanying him on a 2007 international business trip, and

• $3,800 for the three-day Paris layover in 2008.

The largest numbers cited in the city's audit involved the structures the zoo built on Safari Wild. Salisbury is mandated to pay a contractor's charges of $29,800 to disassemble the structures the zoo built at Safari Wild by the end of the year.

That brings the zoo's total claims against him to $50,856.

Subtract from that the $48,644 boarding costs Salisbury said he is owed — a cost zoo officials still dispute — and Salisbury's total debt to the zoo will be $2,212.

That, and he'll have to give back a baby pygmy hippo.

"This is it," Rasmussen said of the most embarrassing chapter in zoo history. "This was the last paragraph."

But some final items in the agreement indicate the zoo may not be completely done with Salisbury.

If Salisbury is subpoenaed by a governmental authority to give testimony about the zoo, he must give prompt written notice to the zoo. He must also "fully and truthfully" cooperate with the zoo and its attorneys with respect to any governmental or legal claim about his conduct while employed at the zoo.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has not concluded its investigation.

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

Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo and former president Lex Salisbury negotiate a financial settlement 08/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 22, 2009 1:14am]

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