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Former Tampa zoo president cleared of criminal misconduct

Lowry Park Zoo chief Lex Salisbury began facing scrutiny after offering to house zoo animals on his Polk County land in 2007.

KAINAZ AMARIA | Times (2008)

Lowry Park Zoo chief Lex Salisbury began facing scrutiny after offering to house zoo animals on his Polk County land in 2007.

TAMPA — Lex Salisbury's conduct as president of Lowry Park Zoo cost him his job, but it wasn't illegal.

That's the conclusion of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which spent 15 months investigating dealings Salisbury made between the zoo and Safari Wild, his yet-to-open private Polk County animal park.

Officials released an investigative report Wednesday giving their reasons for closing the case.

They dismissed most of the 16 allegations of criminal misconduct as civil or noncriminal matters. They focused on one in particular: the alleged theft of $150,709 — the amount Salisbury charged the zoo to build a horse barn, a monkey cage and a shade structure at Safari Wild.

Though they saw conflicts of interest, they said they found no criminal intent.

"There is no evidence . . . that Mr. Salisbury intended to misappropriate Lowry Park Zoo funds for his personal benefit," the report says.

Salisbury's attorney, Robert McKee, said his client predicted he would be cleared.

The report closes the final chapter of a story that began in 2007, when Salisbury presented an idea to solve the zoo's need for more space. He offered 10 acres of his land in Polk County as a home away from home for zoo animals needing respite from being on exhibit.

One executive committee member raised an objection to the nonprofit zoo partnering with Salisbury's for-profit venture, the report says. Another voiced concerns about zoo animals, which belong to the city of Tampa, being housed in another county.

Ultimately, a relationship began. Assets were mingled. Bison moved into Safari Wild, along with white-tailed deer who died on Salisbury's property.

Three white rhinos lived there for a while, under a loan agreement that entitled Salisbury's private park to some of their offspring. In Tampa, Safari Wild's patas monkeys found a home in the zoo's clinic.

In the first half of 2008, the zoo received invoices totaling $150,709 for capital projects at Safari Wild. They were approved by Salisbury and the chairman of the zoo's board of directors, Fassil Gabremariam, who state records show was listed as an officer of Safari Wild.

According to the report, some board members didn't know zoo money was used to build the structures until a spring retreat at Safari Wild. That June, the zoo's executive committee dissolved the relationship.

The Safari Wild episode prompted the St. Petersburg Times to look deeper into Salisbury's ties, which revealed that zoo animals also had been transferred to his ranch residence in Pasco County.

Salisbury told a Times reporter he had bought animals from the zoo. And the zoo ultimately disclosed that Salisbury engaged in private transactions involving 201 animals of 39 different species during his two decades at the zoo. The deals include loans, trades, sales and outright gifts.

Mayor Pam Iorio called for an audit, which revealed that Salisbury made a handwritten change in his payroll paperwork that increased his quarterly bonus from $13,885 to $20,827 and that he charged the zoo for a three-day stay in Paris. Zoo benches and bamboo plants also wound up on Salisbury's properties.

Salisbury resigned in December 2008. He has since opened Giraffe Ranch, where he offers private tours on his northeast Pasco County property in which visitors can get up close and feed giraffes.

Though the 16 allegations are not detailed in Wednesday's report, FDLE spokeswoman Kristen Chernosky said they included excessive or inappropriate travel, salary increases and bonuses, and inappropriate use of credit cards.

Officials dismissed six of the allegations as civil matters and tossed four because of the zoo's lack of clearly defined administrative policies. Two issues dealt with donated property that had been discarded and had no monetary value, and three lacked evidence that a crime occurred.

As for the $150,709, officials concluded that the zoo's financial control policy in place at the time allowed Salisbury to approve expenditures of more than $1,000 as he deemed necessary. He didn't try to conceal the construction of structures or the zoo money used, the report says. The invoices were handled no differently than other zoo invoices.

"Because Lowry Park Zoo's success was contributed largely to the leadership of Mr. Salisbury, the board operated very informally and gave great deference to Mr. Salisbury's executive decisions," the report says.

"This lethal combination of inadequate policies … allowed Mr. Salisbury to make decisions without the necessary oversight for an organization that relies on public funding in part."

The zoo and its new president, Craig Pugh, have established policies designed to ensure these conflicts don't happen again.

Reach Alexandra Zayas at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Former Tampa zoo president cleared of criminal misconduct 03/31/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 1, 2010 3:59pm]

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