Report: Columbus Zoo officials used sports suites, properties for personal use; awarded no-bid construction contract

NBC4 Investigates

COLUMBUS (WCMH) – An investigation into the misuse of funds by two of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s top leaders alleges those men used their positions to attend sporting events in Columbus and Cincinnati, offer housing to family, and award a $2 million no-bid contract for construction at The Wilds.

The investigation, conducted by the law firm Porter Wright, alleges former CEO Tom Stalf and CFO Greg Bell used corporate suites at Ohio State basketball and Columbus Blue Jacket games for themselves, family, and friends.

The suites were intended for the zoo to entertain corporate clients and potential sponsors. However, there is no documentation of who attended those events, but emails support evidence that Stalf and Bell used the suites for their personal use, the report states.

According to the report, Stalf admitted to using one suite to take his son’s basketball team, at the zoo’s expense, to an Ohio State basketball game.

Bell allegedly admitted to using the zoo to obtain approximately 60 tickets for the Columbus Blue Jackets so his son and his friends could attend games.

In addition, the report states the zoo obtained tickets so Stalf’s wife could attend a performance of Phantom of the Opera. On a separate occasion, Stalf’s family used a suite to go to a Cincinnati Reds game, posting a photo on Facebook.

The report says neither Stalf nor Bell have reimbursed the zoo for the tickets or related food and drink costs incurred for the use of the suites.

Stalf is also accused of awarding a $2 million no-bid contract to a construction company of his choosing to build cabins and a meeting space at The Wilds. Bell allegedly handled payment and accounting for the contract work. At the end of construction, the company charged the zoo a “substantial cost overrun,” which Stalf allegedly told Bell to pay despite objections from zoo management.

“We are continuing to examine if there were any personal benefits associated with the award of this contract,” Porter Wright wrote in the report.

Both Stalf and Bell are also accused of using properties owned by the zoo for personal use.

In one case, the report alleges Stalf’s in-laws moved into a Dublin home gifted to the zoo in 2014, charging them $900 a month in rent. Stalf directed zoo funds to be used to renovate the home, spending between $18,000 and $28,000. Stalf said the rent was in exchange for his in-laws making improvements on the property, but the investigation turned up no records showing what improvements were made to the property. Stalf provided a list of improvements made shortly before the investigation began, the report states.

Bell is accused of renting a house owned by the zoo to his daughter and her college roommate.

Neither property was advertised to the public or offered to zoo employees. The zoo also paid utilities, real estate taxes, and maintenance for both properties.

Stalf is also accused of using an RV purchased by the zoo for personal use. According to the report, Stalf allegedly directed the zoo to purchase the $45,000 vehicle so he would have a place to stay during events at The Wilds, which he did one time. Stalf admitted his family used the RV for a trip to Put-in Bay. The RV was either stored at his home or another off-site location.

The report says investigators interviewed 20 witnesses and reviewed hundreds of pages of zoo documents.

Both Stalf and Bell have resigned their positions with the zoo.

In a letter, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium Board Chairman Keith Shumate said the zoo is continuing to investigate, hiring a forensics auditor to look into matters beyond the scope of Porter Wright.

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