Columbus Zoo Scandal: Former CFO Admits to $2.29 Million Fraud
(COLUMBUS, Ohio) — A former Columbus Zoo and Aquarium executive pleaded guilty this afternoon for his role in a scheme to defraud the zoo and the public of more than $2.29 million, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced.
Greg Bell, the zoo’s former chief financial officer, pleaded guilty in Delaware County Common Pleas Court to all 14 felony charges he faced, including aggravated theft, conspiracy and tampering with records.
Bell was indicted in September along with two other former zoo executives, Chief Executive Officer Tom Stalf and Marketing Director Pete Fingerhut.
Bell’s sentencing will be scheduled at the conclusion of the ongoing case against his co-defendants.
The Attorney General’s Office was appointed as special prosecutor in the case.
Previous Release on 9/18/2023
Former Columbus Zoo Executives Indicted for Theft of More Than $2 Million
(COLUMBUS, Ohio) — Three former executives of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium were indicted today for their roles in a scheme to defraud the zoo of more than $2.29 million and use the money for personal benefits, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced today.
“I’m confident that when the allegations are heard in the court of law, the jury will agree that these former executives of the Columbus Zoo extorted, conspired, bribed and stole over $2 million in public funds for their own benefits,” Yost said. “In simple terms, the bank hired the robbers to work security.”
Former Chief Executive Officer Tom Stalf and former Marketing Director Pete Fingerhut are accused of operating a criminal enterprise to hijack the zoo’s purse strings and colluding to conceal their thievery. Also indicted was former Chief Financial Officer Greg Bell, who is alleged to have become ensnared in the wrongdoing.
The indictment alleges that the former executives manipulated credit-card and check authorization forms for more than a decade, using the nonprofit’s public funds for personal use. The Columbus Zoo receives about $19 million in taxes annually from Franklin County residents.
The stolen money was spent on lavish non-zoo related items, including suites and tickets to concerts and sporting events; golf memberships; trips to multiple states and foreign countries; meals, beverages and alcohol; and motor vehicles.
An investigation conducted by the attorney general’s Charitable Law and Antitrust sections, along with the Ohio Auditor’s Office, found that the criminal enterprise not only improperly expensed goods but also bartered, bribed and extorted zoo vendors for goods and services.
In one instance, zoo tickets were exchanged for tickets to Game 6 of the 2016 World Series. On another occasion, Fingerhut is accused of threatening harm to a vendor’s business opportunities with the zoo unless he was paid large sums of cash.
Stalf, Fingerhut and Bell allegedly attempted to conceal their criminal activities by knowingly signing financial authorization forms. In subsequent years, Stalf and Fingerhut filed their state and federal taxes without acknowledging the financial benefits obtained from the criminal enterprise.
The indictment was filed today in Delaware County Common Pleas Court, as the zoo is located in Delaware County and much of the criminal conduct found by the grand jury took place at the zoo business office.
As the investigation unfolded, Delaware County Prosecuting Attorney Melissa Schiffel appointed the Attorney General’s Office as special prosecutor in the matter, with Senior Assistant Attorney General Dan Kasaris becoming the lead prosecutor. Marissa Gibson and Matt Klapheke, investigators with the Ohio Auditor’s Office, assisted in the case.
“The Columbus Zoo is a jewel and I hope that this investigation will ensure that the zoo will exist for many years to come,” Prosecutor Schiffel said. “Thank you to the Delaware County grand jurors who listened to countless hours of testimony and evidence and returned the indictment that was filed today.”
Previous Release on 4/1/2021
Attorney General Yost Opens Investigation into Columbus Zoo Amid Allegations
(COLUMBUS, Ohio) — Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced today that an investigation has been opened following recent allegations involving two executives at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
“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. “I’m troubled by both the allegations and the lack of transparency here, and this office will get to the bottom of it.”
The Columbus Zoo is a 501c3 nonprofit organization that also receives levy funds from Franklin County taxpayers. On Monday, the zoo’s president/CEO and chief financial officer resigned after an internal investigation related to the personal use of zoo assets. Both allegedly received improper benefits, according to reporting by The Columbus Dispatch.
The Ohio Attorney General is charged with protecting and regulating the charitable sector, including investigating abuses of alleged charitable trust. This mission is carried out by the office’s Charitable Law Section, which ensures trust in the nonprofit sector through transparency and accountability. The section ensures that charities responsibly use assets entrusted to them and takes enforcement action when charities exploit Ohioans’ generosity.
Investigations conducted by the Charitable Law Section are confidential. Ohio Revised Code 109.28 excludes investigations of charitable trusts from public records.