Columbus Zoo reviewing use of zoo-owned houses for family of executives

Top Columbus Zoo and Aquarium executives have allowed relatives to live in houses owned or controlled by the zoo, and sought tickets for their family members to attend various entertainment events, a Dispatch investigation found. 

For several years, President and CEO Tom Stalf's in-laws rented a home that had been donated to the zoo, and Chief Financial Officer Greg Bell's daughter is a tenant of another home controlled by the zoo. The properties were never advertised for rent or offered to outsiders or other zoo employees, The Dispatch learned.

Questions by The Dispatch about the personal use of zoo resources have sparked an internal review by the zoo’s board of directors.

Board member Stephanie Hightower said Wednesday she previously hadn’t been aware of zoo executives using resources for personal and family use, and called it “alarming information.” 

This house on the Northwest Side is where the in-laws of Columbus Zoo and Aquarium President and CEO Tom Stalf lived after the property was gifted to the zoo in 2013. The zoo sold the property in January 2021 for $267,000.

“This is not a good look for a nonprofit entity,” said Hightower, who has been on the zoo’s board of directors since 2015 and is the CEO of the Columbus Urban League, also a nonprofit.  

Keith Shumate, chairman of the zoo’s 23-member board, said he has asked a group of board members to conduct a review “to make sure we’ve got all the facts.” 

“Obviously, questions were raised and we just want to make sure everything is being done above board," Shumate said. He said he expected to be able to respond to the allegations in more detail following the review, which he said would take two to three weeks.  

The zoo is a nonprofit organization that receives levy support from Franklin County taxpayers. The levy brings in about $19 million annually to the zoo, according to a 2019 financial statement provided to Franklin County. The levy money accounted for about 20% of the zoo’s overall revenue of nearly $92 million in 2019. In 2019, Stalf received $488,486 in total compensation, while Bell received  $362,355 in total compensation, according to zoo tax documents.

Stalf and Bell insist the zoo's arrangements for its properties and use of tickets were to benefit the zoo. Zoo officials said a 2018 audit into the zoo's use of tickets found no improprieties, though they would not provide a copy of the audit.

Stalf told The Dispatch that his father-in-law helped make improvements to the zoo-owned house in which he lived, with the goal of eventually selling it for a higher profit. Bell said his daughter is a roommate of a zoo tenant. Both men said their use of zoo tickets was always about building relationships that benefited the zoo and "are essential to our business."

"Everything we're focusing on is our mission to lead and inspire by connecting people and wildlife," Stalf said. "Our top priority is animal welfare and protecting our assets."

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Zoo-owned homes leased below market rent

Zoo officials said the homes in which family members lived were leased for below-market rent in exchange for the residents making improvements to the property.

They said the zoo has written lease agreements for all four properties it rents.

But the zoo would not provide copies of any lease agreements or rental terms, with spokeswoman Nicolle Gomez Racey saying that such agreements are proprietary and contain confidential information concerning third parties. Zoo officials also would not say how much rent family members were charged.

“The rates were established to be paid part in cash and part in service in exchange for below-market rent,” Gomez Racey said in a written statement.  

Examples of tenant responsibilities have included installing “patio pavers, paint and (making) other improvements to help ensure the properties are properly maintained for safety and to retain value,” she said.   

Zoo officials have not provided any more specific details about improvements or maintenance that family members were asked to make at the homes. Tenant responsibilities were “not laid out in the lease agreement,” but discussed with tenants annually, Bell said.

In 2013, the year Stalf was named president and CEO of the zoo, it acquired a home on the Northwest Side. The property was left to the zoo by the former owner, who had died. Shortly after the zoo acquired the property, Stalf’s in-laws moved into the three-bedroom, 1,336-square-foot home.  

Stalf told The Dispatch that his relatives’ use of the home was a strategic decision to improve the home and sell it at a later date for a larger profit. Stalf’s father-in-law had managed rental properties in the past, Stalf said, adding that the experience made him a good fit to maintain and make improvements to the home while he lived in it. Stalf's father-in-law was 75 and his mother-in-law was 73 when the zoo acquired the home in 2013, records show. 

“I knew him well; obviously I could trust him,” Stalf said. “We had an opportunity where everything that needed to be done in this house was right in his alley."

Gomez Racey said the zoo put $18,000 toward improvements, which included a new furnace, countertops and carpet. But she did not say whether the family members personally carried out those projects, and would not provide specific improvements Stalf’s relatives were required to make.

The zoo sold the property earlier this year for $267,500, an increase from what zoo officials said they would have sold the home for when they were initially gifted it in 2013. At that time, they estimated the fair market value for the home was between $125,000 to $150,000. Proceeds from the sale went to the zoo’s capital improvement fund, which pays for physical improvements on zoo grounds, Gomez Racey said.

The zoo paid nearly $30,000 in taxes during the time it owned the property, according to the Franklin County Auditor's Office.

The zoo acquired another property near the zoo in 2001, and that is the home Bell's daughter lives in now.

It is one of several properties surrounding the zoo that the organization purchased when they became available, Gomez Racey said.

The daughter of Columbus Zoo Chief Financial Officer Greg Bell has lived in a home adjacent to zoo property since 2017. The home is owned by the county but controlled by the zoo.

“The intent is to expand the zoo’s perimeter and use these properties at the zoo’s discretion,” she said.  

Bell’s 25-year-old daughter has lived in the three-bedroom, 1,344-square-foot home since at least 2017, Gomez Racey said.

Zoo officials said Bell’s daughter is “a roommate of a tenant who carries the rental lease.” The zoo has not answered questions about how much Bell’s daughter or roommates were required to pay in rent, nor have officials shared specific responsibilities required of tenants at that home.  

Bell said initially it was "unbeknownst to me" that his daughter was in touch with the tenants at the property. 

The annual property taxes for the property are listed around $3,900 for 2021, according to Delaware County Auditor's Office records. The market value for the property is about $163,000, according to the auditor's office. The city of Columbus is listed as the taxpayer for the address, but city spokeswoman Robin Davis said Columbus forwards those property taxes to the zoo, and the city does not pay them. 

Even if the rent for the properties is fair market value and it's a "no harm, no foul," situation, renting to family members still isn't a good business practice, said Philip Hackney, an associate professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh whose work focuses on law governing nonprofits and charities. 

"Renting them to people that are related to the people running the organization certainly raises questions, because you're wondering if they have given them some sort of sweetheart deal," said Hackney, a former IRS attorney.

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Neither of the two homes were marketed broadly or made available to the public or zoo employees, Stalf and Bell said.  

Knowing the improvements needed at the Northwest Side home and the disruptions that would come with it made Stalf’s father-in-law a clear choice for the property and for the work, Stalf said.

“It was something that I kept my eye on, as well as our finance team, to make sure that it was done to code, proper and completed,” Stalf said. “And that's why I made that decision. It was the right decision.” 

The property where Bell's daughter lives “never got to that point” of being made available publicly or to zoo employees because a previous tenant had recommended a new tenant to take over, Bell said.

When asked if the zoo board was told about family members living at zoo properties, Stalf said the board knew about the zoo receiving the Northwest Side home and the zoo’s intentions to make improvements to it. 

“I am sure that conversations of improvements and who were improving it happened,” he said. “But, you know, I'm not going to sit here today and tell you that I can remember.” 

“If somebody is living on zoo property, that is not a question or a person that I would feel compelled to have to explain to the board,” Stalf said. “But by no means was I hiding, or (was) Greg Bell hiding any information of who lives there and what were they doing.” 

Concert tickets given to family members

During the same time frame that family members lived in zoo properties, internal zoo correspondence obtained by The Dispatch showed several instances in which Stalf or Bell sought the use of the zoo’s suites and tickets for themselves and family members between 2013 and 2019.  

Many of the tickets and suites Stalf and Bell requested were available through contracts with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Ohio State University. Those contracts were part of a marketing strategy that began in 2015 to grow the zoo’s group sales, marketing, sponsorships and donations, and they were managed by the zoo’s marketing and sales department, officials said.

The zoo had contracts with the Blue Jackets from at least 2015 through 2020, and with Ohio State from at least 2016 into part of 2019, Gomez Racey said. Documents obtained by The Dispatch show the zoo paid at least $562,000 for those arrangements.

Those tickets were intended to be used to host zoo supporters and build donor and sponsor relations, zoo officials said. 

In an interview, Stalf and Bell stressed that whenever they attended such an event, it was to do business and build relationships for the zoo, even when family members may have been there, too. Zoo officials said one of Stalf's main responsibilities is to build relationships to benefit the zoo, and attending events and networking is part of that.

Gomez Racey also said that in some cases, tickets may have been given to the zoo as "comp tickets" from businesses, media outlets or venues with which they did business, though she did not say whether that was the case for any of the examples The Dispatch provided.

But internal zoo emails obtained by The Dispatch show executives’ family members specifically requesting tickets and access to the concerts and sporting events through Stalf and Bell. Most of the emails were sent to Pete Fingerhut, who was vice president of marketing and sales for the zoo at the time. 

Examples of Stalf’s and Bell’s requests outlined in the emails include:  

  • In one 2013 email, Stalf forwarded an email from a relative who requested four tickets to see Les Miserables at the Ohio Theatre for herself and other relatives.  
  • When Fingerhut asked Stalf and Bell about the World Cup of Hockey’s training camp at Nationwide Arena in 2015,  Bell replied that a family member “has already asked, so get me 6 tickets."
  • In a 2018 email, with a subject line “Ticket Order,” Bell listed tickets to eight concerts over five months in which he sought suites or loges. In the case of a Justin Timberlake concert in May of that year, Bell sought “all the tickets I can get.” A food and beverage order for that show, in the zoo’s name, listed Stalf "or" a relative of Bell as the suite host and authorized both to add additional items using the provided credit card. The order totaled nearly $1,000 in snacks, appetizers, beer, liquor and other food and drinks.  
  • Also in 2018, Fingerhut emailed one of Stalf’s relatives directly, asking if he should leave “your Fleetwood” tickets on Stalf’s chair, or if the relative would like to pick them up.  
  • In a 2019 email, Bell forwarded a relative a list of upcoming events and asked, “Any interest in these concerts?” The relative replied with a list of seven concerts over four months.  

Gomez Racey said the zoo is reviewing those instances. She and other zoo leaders also stressed that the CEO and CFO have a responsibility to establish and foster strong relations within the community.

“You might have an email that says that I wanted to go to a play, or I wanted to go to a game or an event, but what you didn't see is why I was going," Stalf said. "Our goal is to turn a professional acquaintance into a lifelong partner."

Bell said that tickets he requested were mainly to be used by zoo vendors, and that sometimes his family members might attend, if there were extra tickets or if a vendor’s family members were also attending. In those cases, Bell said, he reimbursed the zoo for family members’ tickets.  

“This is not about taking a ticket for a family member,” Stalf said. “It's about focusing on the marketing plan and sticking with the strategy.” 

"It was never to benefit my family," Bell said. 

But the zoo would not provide documentation of Stalf or Bell reimbursing the organization. Gomez Racey said records regarding who used the zoo’s promotional tickets were maintained by its former vice president of marketing and sales.

“These records are incomplete and do not provide specific detail on the individuals who used tickets,” Gomez Racey said.  

Fingerhut, who was the vice president of marketing and sales at the time, said he did not keep such records, but said weekly expense reports documenting who was being entertained or what the zoo was using the tickets for would have been submitted to the finance department. 

Fingerhut was authorized to distribute tickets under the zoo's marketing strategy, he told The Dispatch. 

"I handled the tickets for all the partnerships and donors, but when Tom (Stalf) asked for tickets, I'd have to give them to him, because he would give me specific dates," Fingerhut said. 

Fingerhut said he used tickets himself to take "clients, prospects, donors" to events — "people that were actually giving money to the zoo," he said. 

When asked if he ever questioned or pushed back against Stalf's or Bell's requests for tickets for family members, Fingerhut declined to comment. 

Fingerhut's position at the zoo was eliminated in the spring of 2020, along with 32 other non-animal care positions, as part of COVID-19-related cuts, he said. 

The zoo has since discontinued its contracts with the Blue Jackets and Ohio State, zoo officials said, but they noted that the agreements were financially successful for the zoo. They attributed more than $1 million in increased sponsorships, group sales and donations to the marketing program that relied on the event tickets.  

Gómez Racey said the zoo received an anonymous, written complaint in 2018 suggesting personal use of its Blue Jackets and Ohio State tickets, and leadership turned it over to the board of directors’ audit committee.  

The committee retained an accounting firm to review related zoo records and practices associated with the contract agreements and the use of those tickets, and the credit card activity of 44 senior staff members who had zoo credit cards.  

“The audit concluded there were no improprieties,” Gomez Racey said. “The auditor did offer suggestions to improve record-keeping of receipt documentation by employee credit users. In response, the zoo implemented the recommended record-keeping practices.”  

Emails obtained by The Dispatch show that executives’ requests for tickets for family members continued after the audit and into 2019.  

The zoo would not share the audit report or findings with The Dispatch, stating that it is “proprietary and confidential” and was only shared in executive session with the board.  

Internal review of Columbus Zoo only a 'first step'

Zoo board of directors chairman Shumate said this week that the board’s internal review is a “first step.” 

“We'll look and see what the facts are, and if we need to bring in some outside expertise, then we’ll do that,” he said.  

Shumate said he has asked former board Chairman Chad Jester to lead the internal review with five other board members. The process will include a review of records, interviews and anything else they “feel is appropriate to look at."

The Ohio Attorney General's Office's Charitable Law Section regulates nonprofits in Ohio. Spokeswoman Bethany McCorkle said that no complaints had been filed against the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium as of Wednesday afternoon. The office does not discuss whether a nonprofit is under investigation, which would become public only if it results in findings.

In addition to the zoo's board of directors, a separate, public-appointed, 18-member board exists to administer the zoo’s tax levy receipts. The zoo, the City of Columbus and the Franklin County commissioners appoint six members each.

"Whenever you're managing an organization that receives tax dollars, there is closer scrutiny, and you should expect it," said Hackney, the associate professor. "The fact that they have tax dollars coming in and are behaving this way raises my concern level a little higher."

The Franklin County Board of Commissioners plans to contact its zoo representatives to push for a thorough review, spokesman Tyler Lowry said.

“The Columbus Zoo is a real gem for central Ohio, and the commissioners are proud to be a part of that,” Lowry said in a written statement. “Any suggestion that zoo resources might be misused is distressing, and we’ll be reaching out to the portion of the zoo board that is appointed by the commissioners to insist that they conduct a thorough review."

Like much of the zoo’s land, the property where Bell's daughter has been living is technically owned by Franklin County, but the property is under sole control of the zoo.

Davis, spokeswoman for the city of Columbus said, “We encourage zoo leadership to engage the board and to be open and transparent to reassure private donors and the public.”