Sep 19, 2023 - News

Former Columbus Zoo officials indicted for theft

Illustration of an elephant’s trunk holding a gavel.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Three former Columbus Zoo and Aquarium officials were indicted Monday on a total of 89 felony counts in connection with the alleged theft of nearly $2.3 million from the zoo over a decade.

Why it matters: The case, which has been filed in Delaware County court, is likely the final chapter in a scandal that has plagued the zoo for nearly three years.

Driving the news: Former president and CEO Tom Stalf and former marketing director Pete Fingerhut face charges of aggravated theft, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activities, telecommunication fraud, money laundering, tampering with records, bribery, conspiracy to engage in a pattern of corrupt activity and extortion.

  • Former chief financial officer Greg Bell faces charges of conspiracy to engage in a pattern of corrupt activity, aggravated theft and tampering with records.

The intrigue: Their reported misuse of funds was substantially larger than the $631,000 a forensic audit initially confirmed, according to state Attorney General Dave Yost and state Auditor Keith Faber.

Catch up quick: The two offices launched a joint criminal investigation and forensic audit in April 2021, shortly after a Dispatch investigation revealed Stalf and Bell's personal use of zoo resources.

What they found: State investigators accuse the executives of using zoo funds for vacations, vehicles and other personal purchases, and also of accepting payments from contractors in exchange for favorable treatment.

  • At one point, zoo tickets were exchanged for tickets to Game 6 of the 2016 World Series in Cleveland.
  • Investigators say the crimes happened between 2011 and 2021 and included manipulating credit-card and check authorization forms and tax returns to hide the activity.

By the numbers: The $2.3 million lost is the equivalent of nearly 16,000 family zoo memberships, Yost's office notes.

  • When the case concludes, the zoo will be "made whole" for anything it lost, Yost said at a news conference Monday when he announced the indictment.

What they're saying: The zoo said in a statement it has since restructured its leadership, hired a new auditing firm and changed internal policies, procedures and oversight.

The other side: "Greg has done his level best since this problem arose to accept responsibility for his conduct and assist investigating authorities," Bell's attorney Sam Shamansky tells Axios. "He fully appreciates the nature of the misconduct outlined in the recently filed indictment and will continue to be responsible for his misbehavior and do everything within his power to remedy the situation."

  • Stalf and Fingerhut's attorneys could not be reached for comment.

What we're watching: Additional charges are anticipated.

  • "These three did not act without the knowledge of others," Yost said. "Stay tuned."

A timeline of zoo news

Catch up quick: Monday's indictments follow nearly three years of turmoil for the zoo.

March 2021: Former president and CEO Tom Stalf and chief financial officer Greg Bell resign following a Dispatch investigation which exposed their personal use of zoo resources, as Alissa reported.

August 2021: A forensic audit confirms the zoo lost at least $631,000 and two other former officials were involved.

September 2021: A documentary details former zoo director Jack Hanna's alleged involvement in the exotic big cat trade.

October 2021: The zoo loses its accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

December 2021: New CEO Tom Schmid starts.

Early 2022: Stalf and Bell reach settlements to repay misspent funds.

March 2023: The zoo regains AZA accreditation.

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