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Columbus Zoo investigation: CEO used zoo money personally, failed to bid construction project at The Wilds

The Columbus Dispatch logo The Columbus Dispatch 4 days ago Alissa Widman Neese, The Columbus Dispatch
Tom Stalf standing in front of a brick building: Then-Columbus Zoo President and CEO Tom Stalf speaks at the opening of Straker Lake cabins at The Wilds in 2018. The bidding for that project is now part of the investigation into Stalf and CFO Greg Bell. Both men resigned March 29. © Adam Cairns / Dispatch Then-Columbus Zoo President and CEO Tom Stalf speaks at the opening of Straker Lake cabins at The Wilds in 2018. The bidding for that project is now part of the investigation into Stalf and CFO Greg Bell. Both men resigned March 29.

Former Columbus Zoo and Aquarium President and CEO Tom Stalf used zoo funds to purchase a recreational vehicle for his exclusive use and took it to Put-in-Bay for a family trip, according to an investigation by a law firm hired by the zoo's board of directors.

Stalf also personally selected the vendor for a $2 million construction project at The Wilds for cabins and did not seek competitive bidding. The company billed the zoo a "substantial cost overrun," which Stalf instructed former Chief Financial Officer Greg Bell to pay, circumventing normal accounting processes. The firm is investigating if there were any personal benefits associated with the contract.

And at Stalf's direction, the zoo also paid for renovations totaling $18,000 to $28,000 to homes owned or controlled by the zoo, which Stalf and Bell allowed their relatives to live in for years, witnesses told the firm.

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The findings are among the new revelations detailed in the zoo's first public update about the investigation by Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP, which it shared Tuesday evening by distributing a written preliminary report from the firm.

Stalf and Bell resigned March 29 after a Dispatch investigation found that they used zoo assets personally and for the benefit of their families.

On Tuesday, Porter Wright suggested the zoo undertake a forensic audit to determine any money that Stalf, Bell and their families should reimburse the zoo. In an emailed statement, board Chairman Keith Shumate confirmed the zoo has engaged with a forensic auditor.

Among the firm's other findings:

  • The investigation confirmed what the Dispatch uncovered: For years, Stalf and Bell sought tickets paid for by the zoo's marketing department so their family members could attend various entertainment events for free. They did not specify in documentation who attended events with them or whether they reimbursed the zoo for these expenses, which included food and drinks. 
  • In one instance, Bell admitted he caused the zoo to obtain approximately 60 tickets from the Columbus Blue Jackets so his son, who is also a contractor at the zoo, could attend games with his friends. 
  • Stalf and Bell arranged for family members to live in homes owned or controlled by the zoo for years and set the rental prices, another finding from the Dispatch's investigation. Stalf's in-laws paid $900 a month to live in a three-bedroom, 1,336-square-foot home on the Northwest Side. The amount Bell's daughter paid to live in a three-bedroom, 1,344-square-foot home near the zoo wasn't disclosed, but the report said the zoo paid for utilities, taxes and maintenance. Bell's daughter moved out two weeks ago. The zoo sold the other home earlier this year. 
  • The zoo traded admission tickets to Zoombezi Bay, its water park, in exchange for golf memberships for Stalf and Bell at the Wedgewood Country Club, an arrangement that ended last week.
  • The recreational vehicle purchased for Stalf cost $45,000 and was intended for him to use to attend events at The Wilds, a 10,000-acre conservation park the zoo manages in Muskingum County. Instead, the vehicle was stored at an offsite location or Stalf's home. It appears it went to The Wilds just once. The zoo sold the vehicle this year for $37,000 and Stalf didn't reimburse the zoo for its use.

Over a period of two weeks, Porter Wright interviewed 20 witnesses and reviewed hundreds of pages of internal zoo documents. The firm interviewed zoo employees, former employees and some third parties, according to its report. It also interviewed Stalf and Bell twice, who were represented by attorneys.

“Greg Bell is committed to reimbursing the zoo for funds expended on tickets and income lost as a result of favorable rental agreements," Sam Shamansky, Bell's lawyer, told The Dispatch on Tuesday night.

Mark Collins and Rex Elliott, Columbus attorneys representing Stalf, sent The Dispatch a statement Wednesday morning criticizing the Porter Wright report.

"Fair investigations do not start with two scapegoats and work backwards to get their desired results. Rather, fair investigations delve deep into each detail to determine the truth. Fair investigations are not based on the number of witnesses interviewed, but rather the actual interviews of firsthand witnesses who were involved in the actual transactions," it reads. "We have evaluated investigatory reports for the past 28 years and it is evident that this report was published under pressure from the media."

The zoo is a taxpayer-supported nonprofit organization that receives levy support from Franklin County taxpayers. The levy money accounted for about 20% of the zoo’s overall revenue of nearly $92 million in 2019.  

Porter Wright's investigation is ongoing. The firm has suggested the zoo review its policies regarding competitive bidding of contracts, ethics and conflict of interest; consider separating the function of chief executive officer from chief operating officer, as Stalf served in both positions; and review its auditing procedures and rotate its auditors periodically.

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"The board is committed to continuing its work to address the findings in this report," Shumate, the zoo board's chairman, said in his statement. "The board has engaged a forensic auditor to delve into questions that were beyond the scope of the Porter Wright investigation."

The board's chairman advisory committee is also setting up a process where, over the next several months, the board will "examine a wide range of governance, policy and protocol issues to ensure that all appropriate financial safeguards are in place," Shumate said.

a sign in a field: The Cabins at Straker Lake at The Wilds opened in 2018. For several weeks in the summer, they are used to help veterans with PTSD have a place to relax and reflect. The rest of the year, they are rented by the public. A law firm's investigation found that zoo director Tom Stalf selected the vendor for the $2 million construction project at The Wilds and did not seek competitive bidding, which led to a significant cost overrun. © Doral Chenoweth/Dispatch The Cabins at Straker Lake at The Wilds opened in 2018. For several weeks in the summer, they are used to help veterans with PTSD have a place to relax and reflect. The rest of the year, they are rented by the public. A law firm's investigation found that zoo director Tom Stalf selected the vendor for the $2 million construction project at The Wilds and did not seek competitive bidding, which led to a significant cost overrun.

The board is set to meet virtually at 4 p.m. Wednesday, for "an update on operations and an executive session to discuss legal considerations," according to a notice.

Questions from the Dispatch about a month ago led to the zoo board hiring the outside firm to investigate. Zoo spokeswoman Nicolle Gomez Racey did not respond to an email Tuesday night asking how much the zoo will be paying for Porter Wright's services.

Initially, the board wasn't going to release any information regarding the probe. But last week, it changed course, following the urging of some public officials and after Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced that his office's Charitable Law Section, which regulates nonprofits, would be launching its own investigation.

Columbus Zoo resignations:  Yost investigates; board to release more

In their statement, Stalf's attorneys said they welcome the opportunity to participate in the investigation so "true and accurate conclusions can be reached."

"It is not very often that we look forward to participate in an investigation done by the Ohio Attorney General's Office." it said. "However, in this situation we are relieved that a proper investigatory body with experience in being fair will be conducting a complete and thorough investigation."

Late Tuesday, the Franklin County Board of Commissioners released a statement that agreed with the Porter Wright's recommendations, stating that a review of the zoo's governance, policy and protocols is needed. It also pushed for forensic auditors to approve all expenditures of the zoo's levy funds during the ongoing investigation.

"We are concerned about the extent of possible abuses raised by the Porter Wright investigation," the statement said. "We look forward to the additional recommendations that will be brought forth as this investigation moves forward."

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Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther and City Council President Shannon Hardin sent The Dispatch statements Wednesday calling for similar change.

“The Porter Wright report makes clear the resignations ... were necessary, and it underscores the need for a full audit of zoo finances, policies and procedures," Ginther said. "Once complete, we must revisit board governance and oversight to ensure zoo leadership is accountable to the public, that we protect the reputation of America’s best zoo, and maintain our commitment to conservation and the protection of animals.” 

Hardin's statement reads: "Transparency is key to accountability, and this preliminary information from the board shows that there is much work to be done to improve the zoo’s governance structure and policies. A full investigation into any and all improprieties will restore trust in a nationally beloved treasure."

Due to their elected positions, Ginther, Hardin and Franklin County Board of Commissioners President Kevin Boyce are automatically ex-officio members of the zoo board. That means they're welcome to attend meetings, but they don't have any oversight authority or voting privileges.

The Ohio Ethics Commission is also considering an investigation into Stalf and Bell, but is still trying to determine whether the zoo falls under its jurisdiction, executive director Paul Nick said last week. 

The zoo board will cooperate with both investigations, Shumate's statement said.

The ethics commission investigates potential violations of state law related to the misuse and abuse of public offices, including conflicts of interest.

a bridge over a body of water: The Cabins at Straker Lake at The Wilds opened in 2018. For several weeks in the summer, they are used to help veterans with PTSD have a place to relax and reflect. The rest of the year, they are rented by the public. A law firm's investigation found that zoo director Tom Stalf selected the vendor for the $2 million construction project at The Wilds and did not seek competitive bidding, which led to a significant cost overrun. © Doral Chenoweth, Doral Chenoweth/Dispatch The Cabins at Straker Lake at The Wilds opened in 2018. For several weeks in the summer, they are used to help veterans with PTSD have a place to relax and reflect. The rest of the year, they are rented by the public. A law firm's investigation found that zoo director Tom Stalf selected the vendor for the $2 million construction project at The Wilds and did not seek competitive bidding, which led to a significant cost overrun.

awidmanneese@dispatch.com

@AlissaWidman

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Columbus Zoo investigation: CEO used zoo money personally, failed to bid construction project at The Wilds

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