There are a number of ongoing reviews and investigations involving the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium following a March report by The Dispatch that uncovered improper use of zoo resources by former CEO and President Tom Stalf and former Chief Financial Officer Greg Bell.
Both men resigned shortly thereafter, and zoo officials are cooperating with the state agencies reviewing the nonprofit.
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Here’s a look at the various inquiries and where they stand.
Columbus Zoo: What’s happened so far
Questions by The Dispatch about executives’ personal use of zoo resources sparked an internal review by the zoo’s board of directors in March. A committee of board members then recommended hiring outside counsel to investigate, and the board hired Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP to conduct the review.
That 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, and both men arranged for family members to live in homes owned or controlled by the zoo and set the rental prices.
The review also found Stalf used zoo funds to purchase a recreational vehicle for his exclusive use and took it to Put-in-Bay for a family trip, and personally selected the vendor for a $2 million construction project at The Wilds for cabins and did not seek competitive bidding, amid other findings.
Ohio Attorney General and charity responsibility
In the wake of the Dispatch report and the zoo’s subsequent investigation, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s office announced on April 1 that its Charitable Law Section would investigate allegations involving Stalf and Bell.
“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 written statement at the time. “I’m troubled by both the allegations and the lack of transparency here, and this office will get to the bottom of it.”
The attorney general’s charitable law section investigates abuses of charities and ensures they responsibly use the assets entrusted to them.
The attorney general’s investigation remains ongoing.
Ohio Auditor of State reviewing Columbus Zoo finances
Following Stalf and Bell’s resignations, The Dispatch learned that Ohio Auditor of State Keith Faber’s office was conducting an audit of the Columbus Zoo.
Although the zoo has received tax levy funds for decades, the probe marks the first time the state auditor has ever reviewed the zoo’s finances.
The auditor’s office would not share details about what specific type of audit is underway, or why it is auditing the zoo now, citing office policy that prevents them from discussing ongoing work.
Ohio Ethics Commission considers Columbus Zoo investigation
The Ohio Ethics Commission continues to review whether it can investigate the zoo or its executives. At the heart of the commission’s considerations is whether the former zoo officials could be considered public employees under Ohio’s ethics laws.
But if the commission authorizes an investigation into the zoo, the public might not know. All information pertaining to ongoing investigations, including whether they’re happening, is confidential. Investigative information only becomes a public record if the commission reaches a settlement or refers a case for criminal prosecution.
However, the ethics commission could issue an advisory opinion on whether ethics laws apply to the zoo, regardless of whether it investigates.
The zoo’s initial review by Porter Wright recommended the zoo hire a firm to conduct a forensic audit, which typically goes deeper than a regular financial audit, examining financial information for accuracy and lawfulness. Some public officials called for the same.
The zoo then hired accounting firm Plante Moran to conduct the forensic audit.
Porter Wright’s work with the zoo also remains ongoing. As part of its initial findings, the firm suggested the zoo review its policies regarding competitive bidding of contracts, ethics and conflict of interest; its executive structure; and auditing procedures.
Zoo officials have offered various timelines for when they expect the work to conclude, but board chairman Keith Shumate said in mid-June he expects both the Porter Wright and Plante Moran reviews to be finished within 30 to 60 days.