Troubles mount for Idaho Aquarium

Amid OSHA, Humane Society and F&G concerns, more questions arise about management

cmsewell@idahostatesman.comSeptember 13, 2013 

Picketers are planning to protest Saturday at the nonprofit Idaho Aquarium, which has come under fire after complaints about poor treatment of animals and management issues.

Thursday, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued the aquarium a notice of alleged safety and health hazards, including electrical issues, slipping and tripping hazards, and the use in wet areas of electrical cords and fans that were not rated for such use.

OSHA is giving the Boise aquarium five days to respond to the allegations; if the aquarium does not comply, OSHA will conduct an on-site inspection.

Idaho Aquarium co-founder Chris Conk told the Statesman on Friday the issues are easily remedied.

"They are just a couple minor things. A mat here, a mat there. Pretty easy stuff that we need to straighten up in the back room. Nothing having to do with customers or the customer experience," he said.

IDAHO HUMANE SOCIETY

OSHA is the second organization to ask questions of the aquarium this week. The Idaho Humane Society announced Tuesday it is investigating complaints of poor animal care.

Conk said Humane Society and Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials visited the aquarium on Thursday.

"They didn't cite us or have any problems with us," Conk said. "We want to work with all of the agencies and anyone who wants to check us out."

Humane Society Director Jeff Rosenthal confirmed that officials from both groups did inspect the aquarium on Thursday.

"We are continuing to look into various allegations and collect data," he said. "No determination has been made. The investigation is still open."

MANAGEMENT

Conk and Ammon Covino co-founded the Idaho Aquarium, which opened in December 2011. While serving on its board and as co-directors, Covino and Conk each made $96,000 a year.

Conk resigned from the board last month and his last day as director was Friday, he said.

The board selected employee Amanda Davison to be the new director. When asked if he supported that decision, Covino told the Idaho Statesman, "No way. (She has) no business experience, no leadership qualities. She was the secretary."

Davison did not respond to a request from the Idaho Statesman to discuss her qualifications.

Covino said he has been "phasing out of the aquarium since July 2012" and has not been associated with it since February.

"I am the founder. It's fair to say that it would not be there without me," he said.

He told the Statesman he is "very much" concerned about the direction the aquarium has gone since he stepped down.

Covino and his brother, Vince, opened the for-profit Portland Aquarium in December 2012 and are opening another for-profit aquarium in Austin. The Portland Aquarium is the subject of an Oregon Humane Society investigation sparked by a former employee who turned over death logs showing a high mortality rate for its animals.

The Idaho Statesman obtained a copy of the Boise aquarium's death log, dating back to the facility's opening. Former employees and other sources cite numerous discrepancies in the log.

The aquarium refused to discuss or release details about the death log or its mortality rate, which it says works out to about 1 percent a year, below the national average.

Six board members oversee the aquarium. The aquarium will not release their names, but according to a Sept. 11 document filed with the Idaho secretary of state's office, Davison is the board president and Jerry Darnall, the aquarium's attorney, is the board's vice-chairman.

The Idaho Aquarium is a nonprofit organization, but its gift shop is not. It is a for-profit business owned by Vince Covino, according to the secretary of state's office.

GUILTY PLEAS

A federal Florida jury in November indicted Ammon Covino, Conk and the Idaho Aquarium on charges of conspiring to bring illegally harvested spotted rays and lemon sharks to Idaho.

All three defendants pleaded not guilty. Later this month, all three are slated to change their pleas to guilty and enter plea agreements. Once they plead guilty, a sentencing date will be set.

According to the Idaho Aquarium's draft plea agreement, the aquarium must "terminate any association" with Conk and Covino "within 70 days of the execution of this agreement."

In addition, the aquarium will be on probation for three years, undergo a financial and operational audit, pay $60,000 in criminal penalties and fees and pay $50,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. A judge still has to sign off on the plea agreement.

Details of Covino's and Conk's plea agreements are not known, although according to four sources, Conk told the Idaho Aquarium board last month that federal agents are going to seize his personal truck because it was used to transport the illegally harvested wildlife to Idaho. He asked the board to reimburse him the value of the truck. On Aug. 16, the Idaho Aquarium issued an $11,612 check to Conk for "back pay bonus." Conk confirmed on Friday that his truck will be seized, but he refused to discuss any other details pertaining to the check or his plea agreement.

When Conk resigned as director, the board agreed to hire him as an outside contractor at $22.50 an hour to finish building new aquarium exhibits. On Thursday, he sent an email to the board asking to "stay on payroll instead of a contractor" because "it is a pain for me to do it under my own business and it makes me liable." He asked to be paid $35 an hour until the 70-day termination period under the draft plea agreement is up.

Conk said Friday he is the best-qualified person to finish building the aquarium's new exhibits. "I am the aquarium's builder. I have the expertise and knowledge to get work done," he said.

FORMER EMPLOYEES PLAN PICKET

Two former employees, Jordan McDermott-Roe and Jordan Johnston, told the Statesman they quit because of management issues and concerns about how the aquarium's animals are being treated.

Both plan to picket Saturday at the aquarium, along with concerned customers.

"I am going to the protest. Not because I am against the idea of an aquarium, but because I do not agree with how the aquarium is being run," Johnston said. "I think the aquarium needs a staff and board with proper qualifications and experience."

Johnston, who left the aquarium in May, said she was not surprised by Conk's and Covino's arrests in February.

"I had seen them cut many corners before, so it was bound to happen sometime," she said. "I just didn't think it would be to the extreme of a federal investigation."

Cynthia Sewell: 377-6428, Twitter: @CynthiaSewell

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