Boise & Garden City

Idaho attorney general: Former Boise aquarium operators mismanaged organization

Things are going swimmingly now at the aquarium in Boise, which has a new name, new management, new board of directors and new business plan.

But that wasn’t the case a couple of years ago, according to a report released Thursday from Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

Poor management decisions and lack of board oversight led to poor and incomplete record-keeping, deceptive solicitations for charitable donations and excessive compensation to Idaho Aquarium founders Ammon Covino and Chris Conk, according to the 42-page report.

The business, now the Aquarium of Boise, is taking strides to distance itself from the past.

Aquarium Board Chairman John Watts said there is a “180-degree difference” between the new aquarium and Covino’s and Conk’s failed venture.

“These guys were in the business of being crooks,” Watts said. “They did everything they could to take full advantage of this community.”

Reports of wrongdoing and other problems at the aquarium are not new. Based on complaints from the Idaho Humane Society, board members and media reports, Wasden’s office launched an investigation in September 2013. In November 2014, the Idaho Aquarium ended and the Aquarium of Boise, a separate nonprofit organization, took over operations.

Wasden said the findings are a blueprint for nonprofits about how not to operate. “It’s my hope that this investigation and the findings contained in the report will provide all of Idaho’s charities a clear roadmap for better managing their charitable assets,” he said.

Missing financial records, board meeting minutes and other records made it difficult for the Attorney General’s Office to determine the extent of mismanagement.

“The attorney general has no way of confirming the amount of money the Idaho Aquarium received in charitable contributions, or the amount of money the Idaho Aquarium dedicated to furthering its charitable purpose,” Wasden said in the report.

Despite the lack of documentation, Wasden said he is “confident” the Idaho Aquarium paid excessive compensation and benefits to Covino, Conk and interim director Amanda Davison. Davison took over operations after federal officers in February 2013 arrested Covino and Conk on a Florida grand jury indictment for conspiring to bring illegally harvested spotted rays and lemon sharks to Boise. Both pleaded guilty. Covino was sentenced to one year in prison; Conk was sentenced to four months. Both men have completed their sentences.

Between the aquarium’s founding in 2010 and February 2013, Covino and Conk had unfettered and exclusive access to Idaho Aquarium’s checking and expense accounts, according to the report. Davison was added to the accounts in February 2013. After that, Covino, Conk, Davison and other Idaho Aquarium employees, via debit cards, had access to the accounts. At no time during this period did the board treasurer have access to the bank accounts.

In 2012, the Idaho Aquarium reported to the IRS it took in $1.4 million in revenue and had $1 million in expenses. Payroll records show that Covino received $140,500 and Conk received $156,500 in salaries, bonuses, commissions and back pay awards. They also received employment benefits worth thousands of dollars, including payments for their cell phones, gas, insurance, food and other personal expenses.

The Idaho Aquarium had a board of directors responsible for overseeing the nonprofit’s activities and spending, but it was unaware of the extent of Covino’s and Conk’s actions and it did primarily what the duo told them to, according to the report.

“It appears the Idaho Aquarium’s board members served primarily as figureheads,” Wasden’s report said. “The board members who spoke to the attorney general admitted they knew little about nonprofit corporations and said they believed — at the time — that Covino and Conk, as the Idaho Aquarium’s ‘founders,’ owned the Idaho Aquarium and were entitled to whatever they want.”

Despite its findings of wrongdoing, Wasden’s office is not taking any action against Covino, Conk or the defunct Idaho Aquarium.

Idaho law authorizes the attorney general to file a lawsuit against an organization to recover misappropriated charitable assets, but does not give the attorney general the authority to hold individuals civilly or criminally responsible for misappropriating charitable assets. That authority lies with the local county prosecutor. Ada County Prosecuting Attorney Jan Bennetts said she has not reviewed Wasden’s new report and could not say what action, if any, her office might take.

“There are statutory limitations that prevent my office from taking action against those individuals responsible for the loss and misuse of Idaho Aquarium’s charitable assets,” Wasden said.

Wasden said he decided not to take action against Idaho Aquarium because it could have led to the closure of the aquarium, a result nobody wanted.

Per a court order, Covino and Conk can no longer be associated with Idaho Aquarium, which ceased operations last fall. The Aquarium of Boise, a nonprofit corporation with no relationship to Idaho Aquarium, now owns and operates the aquarium.

Watts said the aquarium has undergone extensive restructuring including a new board, by-laws, business plan, animal care protocols and accounting system.

“If anyone wants to know where a dollar has gone or where it came from we can show you,” Watts said.

The aquarium also has shifted its focus to education and has added an Exploratorium room for school field trips and classes.

Wasden and Watts both credit Aquarium of Boise Executive Director Nancy Vannorsdel with preventing the aquarium’s collapse, which could have caused animal deaths and job losses.

“Under the leadership of (Vannorsdel), the Aquarium of Boise has worked hard to repair the aquarium’s reputation and to transition into a legitimate and financially stable organization,” stated Wasden in the report.

Vannorsdel, former Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce leader, agreed in October 2013 to come on board for four months to help upright the aquarium. She ended up staying 15 months, leaving the post in December. Her associate, Joni Sullivan, will serve as interim director while a national search is under way for a new director.

Work to turn the aquarium around could be undermined if Wasden decided to take legal action against the organization.

“A lawsuit in this case would not have benefited anyone,” Wasden said. “Ultimately, I’m pleased that Boise’s public aquarium is now in good hands, and it’s my hope it will continue to benefit the community.”

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