The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium Executives Indicted for Alleged Fraud

Three former executives of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio have been indicted on multiple felony charges for allegedly defrauding the zoo of over $2.29 million. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced the indictments on Monday.

Former CEO Tom Stalf and former marketing director Peter Fingerhut are accused of operating a criminal enterprise that extorted, conspired, bribed, and stole public funds for personal benefit. Yost revealed that the executives manipulated credit card and check authorization forms over a period of more than a decade to use the zoo’s funds for non-zoo related expenses such as luxury purchases, foreign trips, and tickets to events.

The third executive, former CFO Greg Bell, is alleged to have become involved in the wrongdoing.

The 90-count indictment includes charges of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, conspiracy, bribery, aggravated theft, telecommunications fraud, and tampering with records.

The misused funds for personal gain were initially exposed in a 2021 investigative report by The Columbus Dispatch. The report revealed that zoo funds were used to purchase tickets for the executives’ families and that Stalf and Bell’s relatives lived in homes controlled by the zoo.

Ohio Attorney General’s Charitable Law and Antitrust sections, along with the Ohio Auditor’s Office, conducted an investigation into the allegations. The investigation found that the executives not only misused funds but also bartered, bribed, and extorted zoo vendors.

In one instance, Fingerhut allegedly threatened to harm a vendor’s business opportunities with the zoo unless he was paid large sums of cash.

Following the scandal, the zoo lost its accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums but regained it in March 2022.

In a settlement reached in March 2022, Stalf agreed to pay the zoo $400,000 for inappropriately spent money but maintained that he was made a scapegoat.