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Report Accuses Former Columbus Zoo Executives Of Improperly Using Resources

Sign for the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and Zoombezi Bay at the entrance of the facility.
Darrin McDonald
Sign for the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and Zoombezi Bay at the entrance of the facility.

An outside investigation of the Columbus Zoo includes many of the allegations made against two former executives in a Columbus Dispatch investigation.

The report from outside law firm Porter Wright says evidence shows former zoo CEO Tom Stalf and former CFO Greg Bell took entertainment tickets intended for corporate clients and potential sponsors and used them for personal use without reimbursing the zoo.

The investigation determined the pair used arena suites the zoo previously leased for Ohio State basketball and Columbus Blue Jackets hockey games. The reports says "documentation for the use of the suites does not disclose the specific individuals attending the event — a fact that is in itself a matter of concern — but numerous emails support a finding that the suites were used for personal use, including cost of the food and drink."

The law firm says Stalf also let his in-laws live in a freshly-renovated house owned by the zoo for below-market rates.

Bell reportedly let his daughter and her college roommate also live in a house owned by the zoo. The report says the home's utilities, taxes and maintenance were paid by the zoo. Bell's daughter moved out about two weeks ago when the investigation started.

Additional findings by the firm include Stalf using a $45,000 RV purchased by the zoo for his own exclusive use, before it was later sold at a loss.

The firm also says Stalf approved a $2 million contract to build cabins at The Wilds, a Muskingum County preserve owned by the zoo, without going through competitive bidding and normal accounting procedures.

"Payment and accounting for the unbid contract work did not flow through the normal Wilds accounting process but rather was directed through CFO Greg Bell," the report says. "At the end of the project, the construction company billed the Zoo a substantial cost overrun. According to Greg Bell, Stalf instructed him to pay the overrun bill, despite objections by Zoo and Wilds management. We are continuing to examine if there were any personal benefits associated with the award of this contract."

Recommendation made by the law firm include:

  • The zoo reviewing policies concerning competitive bidding and require competitive bidding for all contracts, except certain specialty services, for products or services exceeding a certain monetary threshold.
  • The zoo undertaking a forensic audit to determine any amounts that Stalf and Bell and their families should reimburse the Zoo, and to determine whether there have been other instances of misuse of Zoo assets.
  • The zoo's board of directors working with the human resources department to facilitate employee trust, engagement and compliance.

An emailed statement from the zoo's board of directors says, in part: "We are concerned about the extent of possible abuses raised by the Porter Wright investigation. We are in agreement with the report’s recommendations that further investigation is needed and that the investigation should be broadened to include all trading of products and services. We look forward to the additional recommendations that will be brought forth as this investigation moves forward."

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced last week that his office's Charitable Law Section would investigate the Columbus Zoo, and the Ohio Ethics Commission is reviewing whether the organization falls under its purview too.

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is a private nonprofit that receives about $19 million a year from a Franklin County property tax levy. Former executive director Jerry Borin is currently serving as interim CEO.

Read Porter Wright's preliminary findings and recommendations below.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.