On December 28, a group of workers visiting the Clearwater Marine Aquarium changed clothes in a room near the dolphin pools. According to aquarium board chairman Paul Auslander, security cameras in the room “accidentally and unintentionally” captured the women changing without their knowledge.
But Auslander said the issue wasn’t brought to his attention until June 14, when a former employee emailed him alleging two aquarium executives watched the video in January before deleting it.
Auslander said he then hired law firm Carlton Fields to conduct an internal investigation, which included attorneys interviewing 15 current and former employees. They also performed a forensic analysis of the computers, phones and iPads of five employees. Auslander said the investigation, completed Thursday, concluded the recording was unintentional and revealed that the viewing was instead the case of the two employees asking “what are we doing?” he said.
Vice President of Operations and Zoological Care Mike Hurst, who showed the video to CEO Frank Dame, resigned on July 31 while on paid leave amid the investigation, according to Auslander. The organization assesses whether discipline for other employees is necessary.
Auslander said Dame made sure the footage was removed after Hurst brought them to her. But he said Dame failed by not informing visiting workers of the problem or investigating how the error occurred in the first place.
“It was a huge and colossal mistake, but it wasn’t boys who were boys,” Auslander said. “I am disgusted that this has happened and that it will never happen again.”
Auslander also had a virtual meeting with affected workers on Thursday to assure them that a forensic analysis confirmed the video was not copied before it was deleted.
Auslander said part of an ongoing analysis will be to determine why there was a camera in the room where the women changed clothes, which he described as a laundry room. He said as a result of that investigation he learned that the aquarium had “more cameras than Fort Knox” and that he wanted to determine how many cameras were actually needed for security.
He said Hurst, an 11-year-old employee, was in charge of the camera program, which is “one of the reasons Mike Hurst is no longer there.”
“The cameras were meant for animal welfare, but over time they have evolved into an eye on non-smokers in designated areas,” Auslander said.
Hurst did not respond to two phone calls or a text requesting comment. Dame reported her comment to Auslander.
A representative of the workers who were registered declined to comment.
Auslander said he didn’t want the incident to compromise the trust families, veterans and children have placed in the aquarium over the years.
Aquarium nears completion of $ 80 million facility expansion on Island Estates, which includes new dolphin pools, 197,500 square feet of new guest space, and expanded educational and hospital facilities .
It has experienced explosive growth over the past 15 years after former CEO David Yates brought international attention to the facility through two Hollywood films that highlighted the mission to rescue and rehabilitate the aquarium. Near bankruptcy in 2006, revenues reached $ 37 million in 2019, more than half of which came from contributions and grants, according to tax records.
Auslander said attorneys for Carlton Fields said there was no need to ask law enforcement for a criminal investigation into the video incident. Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter said no victims had filed a complaint but appointed officers to assess the problem.
Former aquarium engineering and operations director Chris Dalton said he waited until June 14 to alert Auslander, six months after learning of the incident, because he feared for his livelihood and its security. He said he waited until the week he left the state for a new job before reporting his boss, Hurst, who Dalton said created a toxic work environment.
Auslander said chief veterinarian Shelly Marquardt first noticed cameras on in the room where visiting workers changed on December 28 and alerted Dalton, who was out of town, via text message . Auslander said Dalton should have intervened.
“His response was something like ‘Well I’m on vacation but you know someone’s watching,’ said Auslander, declining to provide a copy of the posts. Marquardt deferred his comment to Auslander.
In an interview, Dalton said he was unaware at the time that Marquardt meant visiting workers to change in the room. He said he couldn’t control the cameras remotely and that Hurst could have disconnected the cameras on the spot. He said he couldn’t deliver the text messages because he no longer has possession of the aquarium phone.
Dalton said he returned to work on January 4 and found Hurst watching the video in his office. Dalton said Hurst told him he was having the video removed from the server but had already shown the video to Dame.
Dalton said Hurst tried to get him to watch the video. When Dalton refused, he said Hurst replied that “if I ever spoke to anyone about Frank (Lady) and him watching the videos, then he would fire me,” according to the email from the June 14 which he sent to Auslander.
“I didn’t have anyone I thought I could go to,” Dalton said in an interview. “I had this burden on me for six months. During this time I am trying to find another job and I think I have to leave the state.