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Daniel Ruth

Lex's menagerie of malfeasance

What should we call this tawdry tale of money-grubbing, insider cronyism and flat-out hucksterism on the savannah? The Snow Job of Kilimanjaro?

Who would have thought the affairs of sweet little Lowry Park Zoo would turn into something out of the Chicago City Council meets Tammany Hall?

It was only a few short months ago that Lowry Park's president, Lex Salisbury, was enjoying something of a Marlin Perkins reputation for being a zoological messiah only to become the Lex Luthor of Lemurs.

Alas, increasing scrutiny of Salisbury's stewardship of Lowry Park revealed a man who treated the zoo as if it was his own personal Sam's Club of critters, using the institution's resources and animals to enhance his private business interests while dragooning his employees as if they were lackeys doing his bidding.

A recent audit of the zoo's management exposed Salisbury as little more than Leona Helmsley in a pith helmet, finding the president comingled many Lowry Park operations with his private, for-profit Polk County attraction, Safari Wild.

Salisbury was found to have given himself an extra $7,000 bonus, presumably for his deftly executed public relations coup in turning the zoo into a bigger public relations embarrassment than Sarah Palin's fashion consultant.

The audit discovered that the zoo's answer to General Motors purchased a pair of zebras for $2,000 but later charged Lowry Park $10,000 for another pair of zebras. Geez, with this kind of accounting, Salisbury might have a second act as a Pentagon bean counter.

The review of Salisbury's keen management skills also disclosed a transaction in which the president approved the transfer of an $8,000 lawn mower to the zoo in exchange for a $13,000 Mercedes truck, at a loss of $5,000 to Lowry Park. Given this financial acumen, is it possible Salisbury might be moonlighting as a financial adviser to Zimbabwe? Just curious.

Indeed, when Salisbury disputed the value of the Mercedes truck, using an evaluation by the Zoological Association of America, which argued the vehicle was worth only $1,500, left unmentioned was that Salisbury just so happens to be an officer of the organization, that also conveniently has no ethics committee. Now there's a pillar of objectivity for you.

Why get bogged down in details like ethics? The next thing you know people might start bringing up stuff like scruples. No good can come from this.

The Great White Freeloader, who makes $339,000-a-year as The Man Who Came to Dinner of manatees, was unable to explain the expenditure of several thousands of dollars in public zoo funds, which were spent on a three-day visit to Paris on the way back from a conference in South Africa. Perhaps Salisbury was doing intensive field research hunting down the ever elusive three-toed Bordeaux, or the red-breasted croissant.

Are you beginning to get a sneaking suspicion this guy puts a hand in his own pocket about as often as It's A Wonderful Life's Henry Potter?

After the wallaby hit the fan a few months ago, Salisbury went into a seclusion that would make Thomas Pynchon look like a party animal. He sent out his mouthpiece, Robert McKee, to pooh-pooh the findings of the audit and bemoan Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio's very public criticism of his client when she suggested Salisbury was "Out of Africa and Out to Lunch."

And as it would eventually transpire on Thursday — out of a job.

What could Iorio have been thinking? After all, she's only the mayor of a city, which also owns the zoo's land and the beasts roaming the property. The gall of some people.

McKee also got all huffy over the fact the zoo only receives a lousy, stinking $450,000 from the city every year.

It was not exactly a St. Francis of Assisi moment for Salisbury Thursday.

Not only did the Lowry Park Zoo board accept the "resignation" of the Dr. Doolittle of Double Dipping after a meeting with more armed guards hovering around than Snoop Dog's entourage. Salisbury's wife, Mary Louise Sheppa, was cited for animal cruelty after leaving two small dogs unattended in a locked car.

Sheesh, what did this remind you of? The Michael Vick School of Zoology?

Well, at least Lex Salisbury can take some small solace from Thursday's events. He'll always have Paris.

Lex's menagerie of malfeasance 12/18/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 4:28pm]

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