3 former Columbus Zoo executives indicted in $2.2M corruption scheme

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Three former Columbus Zoo and Aquarium executives engaged in a pattern of corrupt activity that cost the facility more than $2.2 million, according to an indictment.

Tom Stalf, who was the zoo’s president and chief executive officer; ex-Chief Financial Officer Gregory Bell and Peter Fingerhut, its former marketing director “extorted, conspired, bribed and stole” while colluding with each other for over 10 years, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said in announcing the 90-count indictment on Monday.

The charges stem from a 2021 investigation by The Columbus Dispatch, which found the executives allowed relatives to live in houses owned or controlled by the zoo and used company funds to buy tickets for family members to various events. Subsequent audits initiated by the zoo’s board found questionable business practices and improper spending on executives' personal items including concert tickets, golf memberships and vehicles.

The indictment alleges that Bell knew that invoices or reasons for the invoices were wrong, yet he approved them. It also states that at one point, Bell changed his mind and “attempted to follow the law,” but his job was allegedly threatened by Stalf.

Yost said if any of the trio of indicted executives had done the right thing, the scheme to violate the public trust would never have happened.

“This required three people who should have been trustworthy to all work together,” Yost said.

The zoo announced in March 2022 that it had reached a settlement with Stalf related to the improper spending to pay back $400,000, which an August 2021 forensic audit said he received inappropriately. At the time, Stalf’s attorney said his client agreed to pay back the money so he could move forward with his life, but then said the zoo was previously aware of Stalf’s actions and alleged that officials scapegoated his client.

The zoo previously also reached a $132,000 settlement with Bell and made a deal with another executive to repay $11,000. That individual was not among those indicted.

Bell’s attorney, Sam Shamansky, told the newspaper his client has “accepted responsibility for his role in these offenses from Day 1. He understands the nature of the indictment and, for all intents and purposes, has already made complete restitution.”

Fingerhut's attorney did not immediately respond to a message from The Associated Press Tuesday.

Concerns about financial mismanagement played a role in the zoo losing its accreditation in 2021, but that was reinstated by the Association of Zoos And Aquariums in March.