Taxpayers should be thankful that no additional public money will be wasted on Lex Salisbury, the former chief executive of Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo forced to resign in 2008 after disclosures that he mingled zoo and personal business.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement says it found no basis to conclude that Salisbury broke the law in dealings between the zoo and Safari Wild, the for-profit safari theme park that he was building on the side. Salisbury quit his zoo job after a city audit found that he had taken zoo animals and materials to his private ranch and theme park. Auditors found some 200 instances in which zoo animals were donated or traded to Salisbury. The zoo also was billed tens of thousands of dollars for barns and other animal facilities built on Salisbury's property.
Investigators dismissed the allegations of criminal conduct, finding that many were civil in nature or without evidence. But the investigation adds to the disturbing picture of how the zoo was run under Salisbury, and how clueless his governing board was to serious management and ethical lapses.
Even months after members of the zoo's governing board objected to doing business with Salisbury, citing the obvious conflicts of interest, zoo leaders plowed ahead. Invoices totalling $151,000 were approved by the then-zoo board chairman, Fassil Gabremariam, who was listed in state records as an officer of Safari Wild. Some board members reportedly were unaware that zoo money had been spent at Safari Wild until they toured the park.
Investigators said Salisbury never concealed the transactions and the financial controls were so loose that he had wide latitude to spend zoo money. This must be a relief to Salisbury, but it points a finger (again) at a governing board that failed to do its job. A review by the Office of Statewide Prosecution said the Salisbury case "highlights the potential for misconduct when the power of a nonprofit president is virtually unchecked." The prosecutor's office also faulted the zoo board for relying on public money and tolerating a "lethal" lack of accountability.
The reports are a welcome reminder that the zoo exists only because it operates with city animals on city land. It must never forget that again.