Nonprofit Newswire | Zoo Keeper Gone Wild—and City Proposes Interesting Ordinance

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September 22, 2010; Source: Tampa Tribune | A Tampa, Fla. city audit [PDF] in 2008 lambasted the director of the nonprofit Lowry Zoo which took lots of zoo money ($200,000 or so) and animals to start a private zoo called Safari Wild.
The audit is a sober but truly devastating review of the Lowry director, Lex Salisbury, whose behavior seems to have been perfidious on many counts: inaccurate inventories of animals, unauthorized transfers of animals from the nonprofit to the for-profit zoo, unauthorized transactions with related parties (himself), conflicts of interest, improper bidding procedures, inadequate financial controls including issues of credit card expenditures (we liked the $12,700 in charges at local restaurants in a two-year period) and overseas trips, undocumented salary changes and bonuses, including salary and benefits for Salisbury himself without documentation of the board having seen or approved the changes.

The conclusion of the audit is memorable:

“Fundamentally, Mr. Salisbury appeared to treat the operation at Lowry Park Zoo, his for-profit venture Safari Wild, and his residence ranch as one. He should not have been engaged in animal transactions involving the Zoo and his commercial business and ranch, particularly since those transactions cannot be tracked to ensure that the Zoo was properly compensated. Assets of the Zoo ended up at Safari Wild and his ranch. Personnel who work at the Zoo and under the authority of Mr. Salisbury also work at his commercial business and his personal ranch. This is inappropriate since the employees may not have the freedom to decline those work opportunities for fear of losing their job at the Zoo. He 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.”

Thanks to Salisbury’s public service, the mayor of Tampa has proposed an ordinance covering the roughly two-dozen nonprofits that get city funding, imposing ethical standards “including limits on financial dealings between senior staff, governing boards and for-profit entities.” The new rules, when approved, will cover nonprofits that receive government funding (Tampa gave nonprofits about $2.3m in 2010) and those housed in city-owned buildings (like the Florida Aquarium and the Tampa Theatre). Salisbury may be a poster child of a nonprofit zoo director gone wild in Florida, but the city is going to make sure that other nonprofits don’t join him on Spring vacation.—Rick Cohen