Special to 1808Delaware

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 has announced.

“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.”

The conduct alleged in the indictments happened between 2011 and 2021.
Tom Stalf, former zoo CEO, was indicted on 36 felony charges:

  • 1 count Engaging in a Pattern of Corrupt Activity (F1)
  • 2 counts Aggravated Theft (F1)
  • 2 counts Bribery (F3)
  • 1 count Conspiracy (F2)
  • 6 counts Money Laundering (F3)
  • 22 counts Tampering with Records (F3, F4, F5)
  • 2 counts Telecommunications Fraud (F1, F3)

Pete Fingerhut, former zoo marketing director, was indicted on 62 felony charges and one misdemeanor charge:

  • 1 count Engaging in a Pattern of Corrupt Activity (F1)
  • 2 counts Aggravated Theft (F1)
  • 2 counts Bribery (F3)
  • 1 count Conspiracy (F2)
  • 2 counts Extortion (F3)
  • 7 counts Money Laundering (F3)
  • 39 counts Tampering with Records (F3, F4, F5)
  • 8 counts Telecommunications Fraud (F1, F3, F4)
  • 1 count Falsification (M1)

Greg Bell, former zoo CFO, was indicted on 14 felony charges:

  • 1 count aggravated theft (F2)
  • 1 count conspiracy (F2)
  • 12 counts tampering with records (F4, F5)

Additional charges are anticipated in the case.

Stalf and Bell resigned from the zoo in March 2021 after an internal investigation focusing on their personal use of zoo assets. Both allegedly received improper benefits, according to reporting by The Columbus Dispatch. Fingerhut had been let go earlier by the zoo as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Indictments merely contain allegations and the defendants are presumed innocent unless proven guilty in a court of law.

Footage of this afternoon’s press conference is archived on the Attorney General’s Youtube Channel.

Source: Office of the Ohio Attorney General

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