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Tampa mayor recommends Lowry Park Zoo director be fired, investigated

TAMPA — Lowry Park Zoo director Lex Salisbury should be fired, and his private dealings with the zoo should be investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Mayor Pam Iorio said Friday.

The mayor called for those drastic steps in response to a city audit released Friday that concluded, among other things, that Salisbury took animals and materials that belonged to the zoo to his private ranch in Pasco County and Safari Wild, a for-profit exotic animal park he is planning in Polk County.

The full losses to the zoo at the hands of Salisbury aren't clear, but they reached about $202,800, according to the audit.

The report also says that Salisbury instilled fear in his employees if they spoke out about his actions.

"The activities disclosed in this report should be turned over to law enforcement for further investigation," the report recommends.

It concludes that Salisbury "seems unable to differentiate between his role as CEO of the zoo and the role he plays with his business and his ranch, and fails to acknowledge the improprieties even after the results of this audit."

Iorio said the FDLE should investigate, noting that an agency with a higher level of authority than the Tampa Police Department would be most appropriate.

Trena Reddick, spokeswoman for the Tampa office of the FDLE, said the agency would need a "clear indication that a criminal violation has occurred'' for them to launch an investigation.

"The documents are online, but a lot of other things go into an investigation,'' she said. "We need more information."

Iorio also said she thinks the zoo board should fire Salisbury when it meets in a special session next week.

"Clearly, he cannot continue running the zoo," she said. "I do feel confident once the board gets the audit they'll share that view."

Salisbury, who could not be reached for comment Friday, has said he never profited from his transactions with the zoo.

Since October, he has been on a paid leave of absence from the job that pays him $339,314 a year in salary and bonuses.

Salisbury is widely credited with transforming the zoo from a collection of sad animals in battered cages to a nationally recognized facility named the country's best zoo for kids by Child magazine in 2004. But some zoo board members now think it's time for Salisbury to go.

"He did such a wonderful job at turning the park around and doing these beautiful things. To see this happen, man, it's not easy," said Susan Valdes, a member of the Hillsborough County School Board and member of the zoo's executive committee. "It's just a shame."

City auditors briefed the executive committee on the 60-page audit findings Friday.

Valdes said she has lost confidence in Salisbury's ability to lead the zoo. "Our community deserves better," she said. "It shouldn't have ever come to this."

Zoo board member Charlie Miranda, who serves on the Tampa City Council, also said Salisbury is likely to lose his job.

"I'm not supportive at all of him staying on. The audit speaks for itself," he said. "There are too many allegations. I don't see how him or anyone else could survive that."

Executive committee member Robert Thomas said he was reserving judgment until he hears from Salisbury.

"I'm sort of keeping an open mind until I see what those responses are. I always feel that people that stand accused in our great country have a right to be heard and present their side of the issue," Thomas said. "I talked to (Salisbury) briefly this afternoon and shared with him that we needed to hear back from him. He's concerned, obviously. Who wouldn't be."

The city launched the investigation after news reports revealed Salisbury's private dealings with the zoo.

Those details emerged after 15 monkeys escaped from an island he built at Safari Wild, drawing media attention to the park. That led to reports that the zoo leased space at Safari Wild for its animals, and paid to build structures there.

The city owns the land that holds the zoo, and a lease and operating agreement specifies that the animals belong to the city. The city also contributes money to the zoo, with this year's earmark set at $450,000.

Salisbury is also under fire from other directions.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a national accrediting agency, has temporarily suspended his membership in the organization as well as the zoo's accreditation.

According to the AZA, Salisbury intentionally "refused to abide by AZA's acquisition and disposition policy." He has also been fined $46,036 by the Southwest Florida Water Management District for excavating ponds and dredging without the proper permits on his Safari Wild property.

Former Gov. Bob Martinez, a member of the zoo board, said he had problems with Salisbury even before the audit was released.

"I'm sure this will compound it," he said.

Times staff writer Alexandra Zayas contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

fast facts

What audit found

Audit findings of director Lex Salisbury's dealings with Lowry Park Zoo include:

• Eleven of 18 birds the zoo bought were transferred to Safari Wild, a for-profit animal park Salisbury is building. Five died there. The other six were returned to the zoo.

• Salisbury overstated the value of animals he provided the zoo in animal trades. For example, buying a bongo antelope for $2,000 and crediting himself $8,500 for the same type of animal in a trade with the zoo. And buying two zebras for $2,000, and crediting himself $10,000 for two zebras in zoo deals.

• 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.

• Quarantine pens deemed unusable by the zoo ended up at Safari Wild. The zoo then spent $30,000 for new pens.

• Salisbury bought feed from the zoo without paying sales taxes.

• The zoo paid for Salisbury's wife to travel with him to Africa and Hungary in 2007, even though his contract allows her to accompany him on only one international trip a year.

• Salisbury put charges that "may be excessive or inappropriate" on the zoo's credit card. In fiscal years 2007 and 2008, those included $12,700 to local restaurants; $400 for 56 Starbucks purchases; and $14,000 for gasoline.

The audit says he admitted:

• Taking five wrought iron benches donated to the zoo to his private properties. He returned the benches after media coverage of his dealings began.

• Taking 12 of 500 bamboo plants donated to the zoo to his ranch. Auditors say as many as 100 plants disappeared from the zoo.

• Taking some of 150 utility poles donated by Tampa Electric Co. to his properties.

Tampa mayor recommends Lowry Park Zoo director be fired, investigated 12/12/08 [Last modified: Thursday, December 18, 2008 2:45pm]

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