Report accuses Columbus Zoo top executives of misusing funds

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The former president and chief financial officer of the Columbus Zoo arranged for relatives to live in houses owned by the zoo and used its marketing sporting event tickets for their own personal use, according to findings released Tuesday by a law firm hired by the zoo’s board.

The president, who was also the CEO, kept a $45,000 RV purchased by the zoo for his own exclusive use before it was sold to recoup revenue lost because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the preliminary report also said.

The executives are also being investigated after a $2 million contract for construction work was awarded to a company that didn’t go through the competitive bidding or accounting processes.

The zoo hired Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP to investigate Tom Stalf, then president and CEO, and Greg Bell, then CFO, after a Columbus Dispatch investigation uncovered apparent improprieties by the two top executives. The preliminary findings were uncovered in a news release Tuesday evening. Both Stalf, 52, and Bell, 61, had resigned March 29 after the allegations became public.

Neither Stalf nor Bell could be reached Tuesday night.

A spokesperson for the zoo said in an emailed statement that the board has “engaged a forensic auditor to delve into questions” beyond this initial investigation. Nicolle Gomez Racey also said that the zoo will cooperate with an investigation opened Thursday by Republican Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost.

According to the investigation’s findings, the two former executives personally used suites procured and paid for by the zoo at Ohio State basketball games and Columbus Blue Jackets’ hockey games. Stalf, according to the report, said he used a suite only one time. Bell admitted to obtaining 60 tickets to Blue Jackets’ games for his son and his friends. Stalf and Bell did not reimburse the zoo, the report said.

Both Stalf and Bell arranged for their relatives to live in houses owned by the zoo, the investigation uncovered. Bell rented one of the houses to a friend of his daughter’s and she also eventually moved in. It was never offered to zoo employees or advertised to the public, the report found. Bell’s daughter left the house last month when the investigation opened.

Stalf also used an RV paid for by the zoo to take him and his family to Put-In-Bay, an island in Lake Erie.

The report said that Stalf awarded a $2 million construction contract for work to a company he chose without going through the competitive bidding process. The accounting process for the bid was done by Bell, rather than through proper channels. The law firm said they are still examining whether Bell or Stalf personally benefitted from that.

The report recommended that the Columbus Zoo undertake an audit to find out how much Stalf and Bell might owe the zoo in reimbursement funds. It also recommended competitive bidding for contracts and for the zoo to review its conflict of interest and ethics policies.