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Zoo, Swiftmud sued by former employee

TAMPA — A former zoo employee says he hauled building materials and feed intended for Lowry Park Zoo to land owned by the zoo's executive director, Lex Salisbury.

The employee, Mark Reynolds, filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Lowry Park Zoological Society and Southwest Florida Water Management District over related matters. Reynolds claims he is owed money for improvements he made on property at a preserve in Green Swamp where the zoo houses endangered species.

Salisbury, who has led the zoo since 1994, has been under fire about his private dealings with the organization. The transactions have involved more than 200 animals, including loans, trades, sales and outright gifts for Salisbury's 50-acre Pasco County ranch and Safari Wild, a for-profit exotic animal park he is planning in Polk County.

A city audit of the arrangements is expected to be released today.

In an interview with the Times in October, Reynolds said Salisbury had him build a barn on his private property and bill it to the zoo, and let Safari Wild employees use zoo vehicles.

Reynolds also said Salisbury directed him to take hay intended for the zoo and poles donated to the zoo by Tampa Electric Co., to his private property.

"Some were used at the zoo, but a good portion were used at Lex's property," Reynolds said.

He said the poles were used to build holding pens for hay and giraffes.

"If you ever spoke out you were immediately terminated," Reynolds said.

A spokesman for Tampa Electric confirmed that the company donated power poles to the zoo, but didn't know how all they were used.

Reynolds was hired by the zoo in 2005 to work as a caretaker on 1,320 acres of Pasco County's Green Swamp where the zoo conducts, among other activities, its red wolf captive breeding program.

The zoo has leased the land from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, since August 1995.

According to an agreement between Salisbury and Reynolds included in court documents, Reynolds spent $25,000 transforming a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment on the property into a three-bedroom, two-bath home for his family.

The agreement called for Reynolds to be paid back for his investment.

Two years after Reynolds was hired, Salisbury fired him, which would have entitled Reynolds to $15,000, according to the agreement. But the zoo has not paid Reynolds.

An e-mail he received in October 2007 from the zoo's assistant general curator says the payment couldn't be made until Reynolds produced copies of invoices and canceled checks.

"The invoice you provided would not be acceptable to our auditors," the e-mail reads.

Reynolds is suing for the money.

Swiftmud is named in the suit because the water district stands to benefit from the improvements Reynolds paid for after the zoo's lease runs out, said Reynolds' attorney, Joseph Fritz.

After Reynolds was fired, Tom Realing replaced him as caretaker at the Green Swamp preserve. But Realing left his post at the zoo earlier this year because he was disappointed by the work, said Doug Kemper, former director of the Zoo of Northwest Florida in Gulf Breeze.

Kemper said he encouraged Realing to take the job at Lowry Park Zoo.

"He very much wanted to work with elephants and Lowry Park had just opened a very large exhibit with elephants," Kemper said.

Realing ended up at Green Swamp instead.

"He was disappointed that he wasn't working with the elephants. He was working off-site at various facilities." Kemper said. "He said he spent a lot of time working at Lex's places."

Realing, who did not return calls for comment, is now back at the zoo in Gulf Breeze, Kemper said.

"He certainly is happy to be back in his home area of northwest Florida," Kemper said.

Salisbury is on a paid leave of absence from his $271,000-a-year job. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has temporarily revoked his membership and suspended the park's accreditation.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Zoo, Swiftmud sued by former employee 12/12/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 12, 2008 1:42pm]
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