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Former Cameron Park Zoo Director Jim Fleshman’s was asked to resign last month, internal text messages and emails revealed.

Former Cameron Park Zoo Director Jim Fleshman was asked to resign last month amid top-level discussions about the zoo’s culture, communication failures and perceived favoritism in hiring practices, messages between representatives of the city of Waco and the Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society reveal.

The Tribune-Herald obtained text messages and emails related to Fleshman’s April departure through the Texas Public Information Act. The communication also shows efforts zoo society officials took to conceal the reasons behind the sudden leadership change.

Stephen Holze, president of the zoological society, which operates and helps fund the city-owned zoo, did not respond Friday to requests for comment for this story.

Fleshman’s resignation, finalized April 16 and publicized April 24, came amid an inquiry into cash-handling practices at the zoo, conducted by the accounting firm BKD LLP. The inquiry is ongoing, Assistant City Manager Bradley Ford said.

In addition, a zoo employee who had been placed on leave and was ultimately fired lodged several complaints against Fleshman in March, including an accusation that he groped her after a zoo fundraising event in February 2017. The city referred that complaint to the zoological society, in accordance with policy, Ford said.

The employee, Vivian Bush, said Fleshman had “proceeded to grab me up tightly against him and was trying to say something in my ear when I broke loose and ran to my car.”

It is unclear whether Bush’s complaints played any role in Fleshman’s departure. Ford said an investigation into the groping allegation occurred and was appropriately reviewed. But that allegation was not discussed in the messages obtained through the open records request.

Bush was placed on administrative leave on March 2 and fired on March 23, accused of falsely claiming on a time sheet to have worked on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. She made the official complaint on March 3, the day after she was placed on leave. But in an interview this week, Bush said she had told programs and exhibits curator Terri Cox on Feb. 23 that she planned to make allegations against Fleshman.

Internal communications on March 1 from Fleshman to Ford indicate that zoo money was missing after Bush handled it, which Bush disputes. Bush alleges Fleshman retaliated against her by denying her resources and staffing, and she is pursuing a case through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Ford declined to discuss Bush’s departure, citing city policy on discussing personnel matters.

Attempts to reach Fleshman, the zoo’s director for 18 years, were unsuccessful.

Text messages exchanged among zoological society board members portray a problematic culture of communication mishaps and nepotism concerns.

“Overall biggest concerns, culture wise, is perceived favoritism and lack of communication,” one text message on April 25 from an unidentified official reads. “The chain of command communication is coming from (general curator and interim zoo director Johnny Binder) and Terri. Both view it as potential animal and keeper safety. … I think we need to have a meeting with Bradley, Terri, Johnny and the Exec to best determine the communication and access to the board, regardless of (city of Waco) employee or Zoological Society employee.”

In text messages, zoo board members also said the Tribune-Herald’s April 24 report of Fleshman’s resignation was “reasonable,” but they expressed resolve to keep further details from being revealed.

“We need to make sure there is no discussion about the circumstances,” one text message states. “I wonder if we need to caution staff not to discuss?”

A responding text states Binder was told to “stay on script” and serve as the lone spokesman on the issue.

“Perfect. Likely to be a little snooping around by the media,” the response reads.

Later messages expressed displeasure that zoo spokeswoman Duane McGregor had spread information on Fleshman to at least 10 people.

“She needs to be encouraged to close her mouth,” one text message states.

The inquiry by BKD has involved investigators visiting all cash-handling locations at the zoo and interviewing all cash-handling employees. Bush said she had no interaction with the inquiry, as she was barred from zoo grounds while on leave.

In an April 17 text message to Holze, Ford wrote that the zoo is “struggling with the culture of hiring family and those with close relationships to the Zoo.”

Ford also told Holze the board should seriously consider delaying action for a $12.5 million zoo expansion until May of next year. The expansion, which Fleshman pitched to city and county leaders in early April, would require a bond election. After news of Fleshman’s resignation broke, McLennan County commissioners shelved a planned discussion about the bond.

“Cheaper for society anyway, likely more targeted turnout,” Ford said of the May election date. “Gives new director a chance to get here and be involved.”

In an interview, Ford told the Tribune-Herald the city and zoological society are operating “in lockstep” with each other as the search for a new director continues and the next chapter for the zoo unfolds.

He expects the search for the next director to last two to four months.

“I think we’re confident we have an opportunity to move in the right direction at Cameron Park Zoo,” Ford said.

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