TAMPA — Embattled Lowry Park Zoo president Lex Salisbury attacked city auditors Monday, saying they ignored his explanations in the 60-page report that accused him of enriching himself at the taxpayer-funded zoo's expense.
Salisbury did not attend a news conference but released a statement through his attorney, who called the city audit biased and the auditors "minions" of Mayor Pam Iorio.
Labor attorney Robert McKee said Iorio behaved inappropriately when she made negative statements about Salisbury's conduct early on, including referring to a zoo animal loan made to him as "Rhinogate."
In doing so, McKee said, she compromised the objectivity of the audit. He also classified the city's contribution to the zoo — $450,000 a year, plus its land and animals — as "very small."
City officials say they stand by the investigation.
Salisbury plans to plead for his job at a meeting of the zoo's board of directors Thursday.
"I ask only that no judgment be made about my conduct until all of the facts are considered," Salisbury said in his statement.
But one board member already has made up his mind.
Says city staffer Santiago Corrada, who serves on the zoo's executive board: "I am adamantly opposed to him remaining."
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The city began the audit in September after news reports that zoo money and animals were being mixed with Salisbury's yet-to-open Polk County exotic animal park, Safari Wild.
The audit, released last week, upheld those allegations, concluding among other things that Salisbury took zoo animals and materials to both Safari Wild and his residential game ranch in Pasco County and that he used salaried zoo employees for his personal work.
The audit could not quantify the full losses to the zoo at the hands of Salisbury, but started them at $202,800. The audit recommends the zoo make Salisbury pay all that money back.
But Salisbury wrote up his own tally, arguing that he provided free and discounted boarding for zoo animals and loaned his own animals for the zoo to exhibit.
He said those services are worth $403,117.
Salisbury also challenged the audit's assertion that he overcharged the zoo for a pair of zebras. The audit shows he bought a pair of zebras from the zoo for $2,000, but charged the zoo $10,000 for a pair of his own.
Salisbury's attorney said the $2,000 zebras were babies, and not yet breeders, so they were not valued as highly as the adult zebras Salisbury transferred to the zoo.
The audit says Salisbury gave a used lawn mower worth $3,972 and $3,433 in cash to the zoo in exchange for a 1961 Mercedes truck with a new roof and sound system valued at $13,178, a $5,773 loss to the zoo.
The zoo originally intended to use the vehicle to give upscale, behind-the-scenes zoo tours, Salisbury's attorney said, but that plan fell through. He said the truck would have rusted on zoo grounds if its president hadn't taken the vehicle off the zoo's hands.
McKee presented reporters with a letter entitled "Exhibit B," in which the CEO of a California park called Safari West estimated the value of the truck at $1,500 to $2,000.
The source of that estimate, however, is not impartial. Safari West belongs to the Zoological Association of America, an accrediting organization on whose board Salisbury is an officer.
In September, the Times investigated the zoo's involvement with the ZAA, which welcomes smaller private facilities not open to the public and has no ethics committee or conservation plans. Its values are out of synch with those of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a mainstream accrediting agency that temporarily suspended Lowry's accreditation earlier this month.
Salisbury's attorney could not provide answers to other audit allegations, including why Salisbury made a handwritten change in paperwork that increased his quarterly bonus from $13,885 to $20,827, or why he charged a three-night stay in Paris to the zoo.
"I have made mistakes along the way," Salisbury's statement says. "I am, however, most comfortable in assuring you that I have never intentionally engaged in any conduct the purpose of which was to enrich myself at the expense of Lowry Park Zoo."
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So the question remains: Can Salisbury's 21-year career survive these allegations?
Board member Robert Thomas says he is keeping an open mind and looks forward to hearing the zoo president's arguments Thursday. But he said he feels the audit was thorough, objective and outstanding.
Board member and Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda said, "If he doesn't answer everything correctly — every single one of those facts there — then, he's got a problem."
"I guarantee you," Miranda said, "this thing is not going to drag out. This thing is going to be resolved, one way or another."
Salisbury is on a paid leave of absence from his $339,314 job. Miranda is opposed to him receiving any severance pay should he leave, saying the past few months should be severance enough.
Salisbury said he is willing to "make amends" if fault is found, and his attorney said he would resign if the board asked him to. But Salisbury hopes it won't come to that.
Miranda's advice: "Plead for mercy."
Times staff writer Janet Zink and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.