Things are going swimmingly for Idaho Aquarium, at last

With founders out of the picture and in prison, rebuilding can start, and the nonprofit can try to win back supporters and visitors.

cmsewell@idahostatesman.comDecember 9, 2013 

  • INVESTIGATIONS UPDATE

    • Ammon Covino and Chris Conk: The two former directors of the Idaho Aquarium were sentenced Dec. 2 in a Florida federal court for conspiring to bring illegally harvested spotted rays and lemon sharks to Boise for display at the aquarium.

    Covino was sentenced to one year in prison followed by two years supervised release. The court also barred Covino from any employment during his supervised release that involves the possession, display, transportation, exhibition, purchase or sale of wildlife.

    Conk, who cooperated with investigators, received a reduced sentence of four months in prison followed by two years of supervised release.

    Covino, Conk and the Idaho Aquarium pleaded guilty in September. A judge delayed Idaho Aquarium's sentencing until March 24. The aquarium agreed to pay a $10,000 fine and donate $50,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

    Covino and Conk, both 40, founded the nonprofit Idaho Aquarium in Boise in 2011.

    Covino and his brother, Vince, opened in 2012 a for-profit aquarium in Portland and plan to open an aquarium in Austin, Texas, this month.

    Vince Covino took over the Idaho Aquarium gift shop as a for-profit operation in January, Vannorsdel said. This week it is being returned to nonprofit use, with proceeds going to the aquarium.

    • Idaho Humane Society: Director Jeff Rosenthal said he did not find any violations of ordinances or codes that fall under the Humane Society's purview, which is limited to vertebrates (animals with backbones).

    • Idaho Department of Fish and Game: The aquarium had to turn over its cayman to Fish and Game because it was not properly permitted. Fish and Game, recognizing the errors occurred under prior management, gave the aquarium a warning instead of a citation and approval for two new caymans. "I think they are on the right track," said Charlie Justus of Fish and Game.

    • U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration: The agency issued the aquarium a notice in September of alleged safety and health hazards, including electrical, slipping and other hazards. The investigation concluded this month with the aquarium being fined $1,200 for two violations - a construction worker not wearing safety glasses and an employees-only platform over a tank not having a safety rail.

    • U.S. Dept. of Labor: Inquiry revealed overtime was being calculated incorrectly. Vannorsdel said the problems were fixed once identified.

  • HOURS, ADMISSION

    Idaho Aquarium

    64 N. Cole Road

    Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

    Admission: Adults $9; children ages 3 to 11 $6; children 2 and younger free; seniors and military $7

    Phone: 375-1932

When Nancy Vannorsdel took over as Idaho Aquarium interim director in October, she wanted to find out what it was doing right and what it could do better. She talked extensively with the staff and her friends in the community. She spent three Sundays in the parking lot interviewing patrons coming out of the aquarium.

Then she took what she learned and came back with a plan.

"We are changing our name, we are changing our look and we are shifting our focus to education, which is where it should have been," Vannorsdel said.

Key to the new education emphasis is the Exploratorium, a large multimedia room to be used for classes, lectures, traveling exhibits and other educational offerings. It also will include a viewing area where visitors can get a behind-the-scenes look at the biologists and staff at work in the aquarium's lab. Even the gift shop will have a nonprofit, educational orientation

UNRETIRING — AGAIN

Vannorsdel has been successful in many areas — except when it comes to retirement. She has failed at it. Twice.

When she retired from banking in 1997, she was one of the highest-ranking female bank executives in the Northwest. That retirement lasted fewer than six months; she took up the helm of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce and served as its CEO for 12 years.

She retired from the chamber in 2009, but has now embarked on rebuilding the Idaho Aquarium after a two-year run that ended with its founders going to federal prison, authorities seizing improperly permitted animals and a slew of management problems.

She jokes that she signed on for a four-month stint, figuring it would be a fairly simple job: Establish some rules, polish the tarnished areas, tidy up the books. After all, she helped run one of the region's largest banks and led one of the state's largest nonprofits. "How hard could it be?" she asked.

Then she started peeling back the layers. "Every single day, something would happen, something new would come up," she said.

EATING THE ELEPHANT

She reviewed the books and said she was shocked at what she found. Financial records were missing or incomplete. The records that did exist indicated money coming in had not always been spent on the nonprofit facility.

The Idaho Attorney General's Office had an investigation underway, and Vannorsdel said she supported it "in every way."

Realizing she needed help with day-to-day operations, she cajoled longtime friend Joni Sullivan into serving as interim chief operations officer. Sullivan has owned her own business, served on several nonprofit boards and founded America to Africa HELP, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of disadvantaged children in Africa.

Vannorsdel said if she ever sees a consulting fee for her aquarium work, she will split it with Sullivan.

When they looked at the challenge, Vannorsdel and Sullivan asked themselves: "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time," Vannorsdel said. "And let me tell you, we have pretty much eaten the entire elephant."

Vannorsdel handpicked four new board members with no prior connections to the aquarium or its founders, and she plans to announce several more.

She also went to work resolving several investigations into the aquarium. Earlier this year, employee and whistleblower complaints sparked inquiries by Idaho Humane Society, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and U.S. Department of Labor.

Vannorsdel said those have been resolved.

"We do everything by the book now," said Vannorsdel.

She drew up new protocols to ensure the aquarium abides by state and federal rules. The first test proved successful: While purchasing a new octopus, the aquarium discovered the dealer's permit had lapsed. The aquarium refused to go forward until the dealer permit was renewed.

Idaho Humane Society Director Jeff Rosenthal said he is pleased with the aquarium's new leadership, including new board members without ties to the aquarium. "I see that as a very positive sign," he said. "Hopefully any problems can be cleared up."

NEW NAME, NEW LOOK

Tanks and exhibits are being redone to improve animal health and visitor experience. Larger tanks are being built for the rays, the sea turtle and the octopus.

Vannorsdel said she thinks one of the reasons the aquarium's octopi kept dying was because the tank was too small and the intelligent animal needs "enrichment."

"They need to have more than food and water to thrive," she said.

Vannorsdel selected an artist-in-residence, Angela Drake, to paint murals and redo the interior's palette.

In three or four months, a major part of the remodeling should be done and the Exploratorium complete. But that means Vannorsdel's four-month term likely will be extended.

"I have some things I want to be up and running before I go. I want it to be financially stable. I want the Exploratorium to be going gangbusters," she said. "But in order to do that we need one thing. We need the people to come back."

Once the aquarium is on better footing, it will conduct a national search for a director and Vannorsdel can try one more time to do that thing she cannot seem to get right: "When I get out of this I am not going to flunk retirement again," she said.

FIRE BEFORE NEW GROWTH

Biologist Sheree Dessel, 24, has worked at the aquarium for almost two years. She said there were dark days when she dreaded coming to work. She persevered because she couldn't leave the animals. Her face lights up when she talks about Vannorsdel and Sullivan and how the cloud lifted when founders Ammon Covino and Chris Conk were removed and, ultimately, sent to federal prison.

The quality of animal care has improved with the new management, she said. "Now the biologists have a say," Dessel said. "The animals are doing much better. They are happier."

The aquarium's problems and media coverage of Conk and Covino's arrests was excruciating, because it drove visitors away and left the few dedicated staff members reeling, she said. But it needed to happen.

"Otherwise these changes would have never taken place," she said. "It did hurt us, but a fire has to come through to start new growth. We've got a huge disaster that happened to us, but we are starting fresh, and we are starting to see new growth.

"I would love for people to come back and see the changes we've made," Dessel said. "Give us a second chance. I want people to come in see what we have done, to see what Nancy and Joni have done. Our hearts are truly in it."

Join an Idahostatesman.com online chat with new aquarium leaders at 11 a.m. Wednesday

Cynthia Sewell: 377-6428, Twitter: @CynthiaSewell

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