Ohio AG to probe allegations against Columbus Zoo ex-execs
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio’s top law enforcer placed one of the nation’s largest zoos under investigation Thursday after a newspaper reported misuse of assets by two top executives who later resigned.
Republican Attorney General Dave Yost placed his office’s Charitable Law Section in charge of the probe targeting the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, a 501(c)3 nonprofit located in the Columbus suburb of Powell. Its animal population is ranked second largest among U.S. zoos.
Board Chair Keith Shumate said in a statement that the zoo welcomes Yost’s involvement and will work with his office “as it examines the facts of this matter.”
Yost’s action was prompted by a Columbus Dispatch investigation that uncovered apparent improprieties by Tom Stalf, then president and CEO, and Greg Bell, then chief financial officer. The newspaper reported that Stalf, 52, and Bell, 61, allowed relatives to live in houses owned or controlled by the zoo and sought tickets for family members to zoo entertainment events.
Both Stalf and Bell resigned Monday. The zoo named Director Emeritus Jerry Borin interim president and CEO on Tuesday. He stepped out of retirement to take immediate control.
“Charity may begin at home for an individual, but it’s trouble when an executive for a charitable organization uses company resources for friends and family,” Yost said in a statement. “I’m troubled by both the allegations and the lack of transparency here, and this office will get to the bottom of it.”
Neither Stalf nor Bell could immediately be reached Thursday. In a Tuesday statement reported by the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa, Stalf said he was proud of what he accomplished in Columbus and planned to continue his work in global and local wildlife conservation.
“It was (an) honor building on the legacy of Jack Hanna and making a strong impact on wildlife care and conservation internationally,” he said. “Jungle Jack” Hanna is a zookeeper and Columbus Zoo director emeritus who became a well-known media personality.
The newspaper has reported that its questions prompted an internal review by the zoo’s board of directors in March. A committee of the board recommended hiring outside counsel to investigate.
The first phase of work by the selected law firm, Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP, which focused on the two executives, is complete, The Dispatch reported, citing Shumate. Shumate said a second phase is planned to address broader issues of policy, procedures and practices.
The Columbus Zoo receives levy funds from taxpayers in Franklin County, home to Columbus, the state’s capital and largest city. Members of both the Franklin County Commission and the Columbus City Council have called on the zoo to release its internal investigation results publicly.
In his statement Thursday, Shumate said because of those calls for transparency and “the community’s broad interest,” Porter Wright’s preliminary report — which was delivered verbally to the board on Monday — will be converted to a written record and released to the public Tuesday.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the zoo’s board chair. His name is Keith Shumate, not Alex.