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3 former Columbus Zoo employees indicted on 89 felony counts after alleged theft of more than $2.2M

The indictments come after four former zoo employees were accused of losing more than $630,000 and misusing zoo resources in 2021.

POWELL, Ohio — Three former Columbus Zoo and Aquarium employees have been indicted on 89 felony charges after an investigation into alleged misuse of funds and resources, according to Ohio Attorney General Yost. 

The state auditor’s office released a statement Monday afternoon saying that the zoo’s former CEO Tom Stalf, former Director of Marketing Pete Fingerhut, and former Chief Financial Officer Greg Bell each face multiple felony counts.

“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.”

Stalf and Fingerhut now face felony counts of aggravated theft, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activities, telecommunication fraud, money laundering, tampering with records, bribery, conspiracy to engage in a pattern of corrupt activity and extortion under the indictment.

Bell faces felony counts of conspiracy to engage in a pattern of corrupt activity, aggravated theft and tampering with records. Yost said additional charges are anticipated in the case.

Here is the breakdown of the felony charges:

Stalf was indicted on 36 felony charges:

  • 1 count Engaging in a Pattern of Corrupt Activity 
  • 2 counts Aggravated Theft 
  • 2 counts Bribery 
  • 1 count Conspiracy 
  • 6 counts Money Laundering 
  • 22 counts Tampering with Records 
  • 2 counts Telecommunications Fraud 

Fingerhut was indicted on 62 felony charges and one misdemeanor charge:

  • 1 count Engaging in a Pattern of Corrupt Activity 
  • 2 counts Aggravated Theft 
  • 2 counts Bribery 
  • 1 count Conspiracy 
  • 2 counts Extortion 
  • 7 counts Money Laundering 
  • 39 counts Tampering with Records 
  • 8 counts Telecommunications Fraud
  • 1 count Falsification

Bell was indicted on 14 felony charges:

  • 1 count aggravated theft 
  • 1 count conspiracy
  • 12 counts tampering with records 

According to Yost, 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. 

One instance referenced by Yost alleged that 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.

The indictments come after the former employees were accused of losing more than $630,000 and misusing zoo resources in 2021. The investigation revealed that the crimes allegedly took place between 2011 and 2021 and resulted in the theft of approximately $2.29 million. 

Credit: Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost

Stalf and Bell allegedly let family members live in houses controlled by the zoo and got them tickets for entertainment events. 

According to a report, Stalf, Bell, Fingerhut and former Director of Purchasing Tracy Murnane used their positions "to blatantly ignore established policies and use a system among themselves to utilize Zoo resources for their personal advantage." Murnane was not charged.

“These indictments today should serve as a warning for any others who think they can steal from the public coffers without consequence: We will hold you accountable for every ill-gotten cent,” Auditor Keith Faber said.

Stalf and Bell voluntarily resigned from their positions in 2021. Tom Schmid filled the role formerly held by Stalf in October 2021.

The zoo’s board of directors launched an internal investigation that year, working with a law firm to find out the extent of the accusations. 

The zoo says their actions resulted in the following losses, totaling $631,651:

  • Stalf is responsible for $423,049.00 in losses, plus interest
  • Bell is responsible for $138,889.00 in losses, plus interest
  • Fingerhut is responsible for $56,981.00 in losses, plus interest
  • Murnane is responsible for $12,732.00 in losses, plus interest

Bell and Murmane agreed to pay back a total of $143,000, according to the zoo. Zoo officials confirmed in March 2022 that the Board of Directors approved a $400,000 settlement with Stalf. As of early 2022, a settlement with the final official, Fingerhut, had not yet been reached.

In a written statement provided on Monday, Mayme Norman, vice president of philanthropy, said the zoo is a better-governed and stronger institution now.

“The Columbus Zoo is committed to transparency and accountability and has taken a comprehensive approach to address every recommendation highlighted in the Plante Moran forensic report,” Norman wrote. “Additionally, the Columbus Zoo has severed the relationship with several previous vendors and has retained a new auditing firm to conduct its annual audit, ensuring a fresh perspective on its financial operations and a new advertising agency to better communicate its mission. To strengthen governance and oversight, the organization has restructured and significantly reduced the size of the Board of Directors.”

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