Secrecy divides Idaho Aquarium board

Member Josh Cook says he wants to clean up problems at the Boise facility, but fears he may be kicked out.

cmsewell@idahostatesman.comSeptember 21, 2013 

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Beam, a green sea turtle, swims in the 17,000-gallon sea turtle exhibit at the Idaho Aquarium on Friday. Beam was injured by a boat in south Florida in 2011, and its rear flippers are paralyzed. Since the species is endangered, the aquarium is required to have a special permit and adhere to federal regulations to keep the turtle.

JOE JASZEWSKI — jjaszewski@idahostatesman.com

Idaho Aquarium board member Josh Cook was told this week he cannot have access to recent board minutes, bank statements or billing records unless he signs a confidentiality agreement. And if he wants to see the nonprofit organization's tax returns, he can dig around online.

"I am not signing a confidentiality agreement," Cook said Friday. "As a board member, I have a duty to investigate the allegations being made against the aquarium. I want answers. I cannot get answers."

Earlier this month, the aquarium had all employees sign confidentiality agreements.

"We are not giving him that information until he signs the agreement," board president and aquarium director Amanda Davison told the Statesman Friday. "We have nothing to hide. It is normal practice for any company to have confidentiality agreements."

Under IRS rules, nonprofits "must make available for public inspection" annual returns and other documents and provide copies to anyone who asks.

"I am a board member and I cannot get them," Cook said.

Six volunteer board members oversee the aquarium. Cook, who owns a saltwater aquarium store in Eagle, joined the board earlier this year. Other board members had quit when a Florida federal grand jury indicted the aquarium and its co-founders, Chris Conk and Ammon Covino, on charges of transporting illegally harvested Florida marine life to Idaho.

Cook said he takes his role as board member seriously and cannot look the other way amid allegations of mismanagement. The Idaho Humane Society and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game are investigating the aquarium; a federal agency is looking into allegations of worksite hazards.

Cook said he wants to make sure the board complies with state law and aquarium bylaws, behaves ethically and is severing its ties to Conk and Covino as ordered by a court. He said three of the six board members - Davison, Jerry Darnall and Anthony Mishler - oppose him and may try to remove him from the board.

Cook said board members Randy Thomsen and Jerri Jacobs share his concerns.

"Right now, the board is split," Cook said. "If I resign, they gain control and can do whatever they want."

Cook asked the board to put several proposals on its Oct. 1 agenda: removing Darnall as the aquarium's attorney; implementing employee drug testing and background checks; discussing the OSHA and Idaho Humane Society investigations; and creating a process for selecting a new director. He said his request went unanswered and suspects Davison will ask the board to remove him at the meeting.

Cook said Davison told him he must sign the confidentiality agreement before he can get a copy of the Oct. 1 agenda.

Davison told the Statesman she would not discuss the board's next agenda or if she will ask the board to remove Cook.

"Our board meetings are closed to the public," she said. "I am not going to discuss anything pertaining to the board."

The Idaho Aquarium is set to plead guilty in Florida federal court Tuesday to conspiring to illegally harvest and transport marine life to Idaho, a felony. Conk and Covino also are expected to plead guilty next week.

The aquarium board has agreed to the terms of a federal plea agreement. Under the plea agreement, the nonprofit agrees to three years of organizational probation. Cook said he fears the aquarium doesn't have the requisite records to meet the plea agreement's mandate that it undergo a financial and operations audit.

He said he also is concerned with the provision that the aquarium terminate any association with Conk and Covino, because Conk is friends with board members Davison and Mishler. Davison took over as aquarium director for Conk, who served as a board member and director until recent weeks.

Cook believes Davison is Chris Conk's girlfriend and took that concern to the Florida attorney representing the aquarium in the federal case. In a Sept. 18 email exchange, the attorney wrote: "The prosecutor is aware that Amanda is Chris' girlfriend."

Davison on Friday said she is not in a relationship with Conk. She said she does not know if Conk is personal friends with any other board members. She also said the aquarium will abide by all terms of the plea agreement and follow all applicable state and federal laws.

Cook said he has consulted with lawyers about his options. He said he wants the aquarium to survive and be run professionally and legally. But he said he doesn't want to be silenced by a confidentiality agreement or be liable for illegal activities if mismanagement continues.

Cynthia Sewell: 377-6428, Twitter: @CynthiaSewell

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