AUSTIN (KXAN) - A flurry of viewer emails and calls pouring into KXAN raise questions about an a privately owned aquarium planned for Austin. Criminal charges and damaging allegations are surfacing in connection with associated aquariums in Boise and Portland. And the new Austin Aquarium is facing permitting issues.
Vince Covino and his brother Ammon Covino own and operate the Portland and Boise Aquariums. They're also behind the Austin Aquarium.
A so-called death log released by a former employee showing hundreds of animals died since the Portland facility opened is what really has the Covino's under the microscope.
Today in an interview with KXAN, one of the Covino brothers tries to offer some answers.
“We are on track. Everything is going just as planned,” Vince Covino told KXAN.
Covino calls it the aquarium of the future but before the multi-million dollar facility in northwest Austin can even open, the future is in question because of problems in the past.
The Portland Humane Society announced an investigation into the Portland aquarium,
after allegations surfaced from a former employee reported more than 200 animals dying in a three month period due to various including starvation, infection, and attacks by other animals. In many deaths shown in the log, the cause was unknown.
Covino said the logs were kept as an accounting measure but claims there was no abuse or neglect.
“If 200 animals die out of 10,000, that’s an 8% mortality rate,” said Covino. “An 8% mortality rate is in line with any public aquarium that I’m aware of,” he continued.
Vince's brother Ammon Covino was indicted last year on federal charges of illegally acquiring sharks and eagle rays for the Boise Aquarium. The U.S. Attorney’s Office confirms Ammon Covino signed a guilty plea agreement.
Vince Covino has said that his brother will not be involved in the Austin Aquarium operations. However, Ammon Covino’s name is shown on city and state records as a “managing member” of the new Austin aquarium.
“He came here, he designed the aquarium for here, and he’s building the aquarium here. The day it opens he's done here,” Vince Covino told KXAN.
And while Vince says his brother won't be involved in daily operations Ammon Covino’s conviction could still prevent the aquarium from getting the proper permits, as background checks are required. Vince Covino says he doesn't think it will be a problem.
But some Austinites have already made their decision.
Mindy Briggs is a mother and animal lover here in town. At one point she was one of more than 30,000 people who “liked” the Austin Aquarium’s Facebook page, looking forward to the opening of the aquarium.
"I liked the page and as a mom of a four and six-year-old," Briggs said. "I thought it would be a great activity for the family."
But since the allegations out of Portland surfaced, along with news of Ammon Covino’s federal charge, she no longer supports the Austin Aquarium, and is spreading the word on a Facebook site boycotting the Austin Aquarium.
“They’re trying to brush it under the rug but it won’t be easily brushed under the rug here in Austin,” said Briggs.
Covino told us the aquarium is on schedule for an opening in November just before he made this promise to the people of Austin:
“Unequivocally these animals are going to be taken care of,” promised Covino.
Meanwhile, there is still the issue of permitting for the Austin Aquarium. Vince Covino said he has all the proper permits to finish the Aquarium located on North highway 183. However, KXAN confirmed there is an open investigation with the city's Code Compliance Department. The City says the Austin Aquarium hasn't obtained a building permit. The Aquarium was cited for not having a certificate of occupancy and for installing water tanks without an approved site plan. The City did say that it’s working with Covino to bring the facility in to compliance.
KXAN will keep you posted on the City’s code compliance investigation and the progress of the Austin Aquarium.
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