Updated Mar 14, 2022 - News

Zoo reaches $400,000 settlement with former CEO Tom Stalf

Illustration of a giraffe eating money

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium reached a $400,000 settlement with former president and CEO Tom Stalf on Friday.

  • The news comes nearly a year after he resigned amid a budding financial scandal.

Why it matters: Stalf's personal use of zoo assets — totaling at least $432,000 in losses, according to a forensic audit — made up the bulk of misspending that eroded public trust.

  • Stalf agreeing to pay back the money means the zoo can avoid trying to reclaim it through a lawsuit.

The latest: Stalf's attorney, Rex Elliott, provided a statement to Axios alleging the zoo knew about his client's behavior and made him a scapegoat.

  • "Mr. Stalf only agreed to settle this now and pay money he doesn't owe out of concern for his family and to move forward with his life," Elliott's statement says.

Yes, but: An investigation by the Ohio Attorney General's Charitable Law Section, which regulates the state's nonprofits, is ongoing. The office tells Axios it has no updates as of Friday.

Catch up quick: The allegation against Stalf is that he used zoo assets to personally benefit himself and his family, including a home, an RV, golf club memberships and marketing department event tickets.

What's next: Just one of four former officials involved in the scandal — former vice president of marketing Pete Fingerhut, accused of losses totaling $57,000 — has not yet reached an agreement with the zoo.

  • The zoo has now reclaimed $543,000 of the $631,000 it lost. The three settlements were all slightly lower than what the forensic audit says the employees owed.

The big picture: The entire cost of the scandal and its ripple effects are still unclear.

  • The zoo spent $130,000 on a search firm used to hire its new CEO, Tom Schmid, spokesperson Nicolle Gómez Racey tells Axios. It also repaid $44,000 in back taxes on properties rented to officials’ family members.
  • But it has not yet confirmed the costs of hiring a law firm and auditing firm.
  • About 20% of the nonprofit zoo's annual $92 million budget comes from Franklin County property taxes.

Editor's note: This developing story has been updated with a response from the zoo sent Monday morning regarding the search for new CEO Tom Schmid.


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