Columbus Zoo executives may face investigation from Ohio Ethics Commission

The Ohio Ethics Commission will discuss whether to launch an investigation into the top officials at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

The Ohio Ethics Commission will consider Friday whether to launch an investigation into two Columbus Zoo and Aquarium executives and if they violated Ohio law by using zoo assets personally.

Paul Nick, the commission's executive director, confirmed Tuesday morning that it is "examining the issue." The consideration comes days after The Dispatch reported the personal use of zoo resources by the top executives of the taxpayer-supported nonprofit organization.

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

The commission investigates potential violations of state law related to the misuse and abuse of public offices, including conflicts of interest.

Zoo spokeswoman Nicolle Gómez Racey said the ethics commission had not reached out to the zoo, and therefore the zoo "cannot provide comment about something that is hearsay."

Zoo President and CEO Tom Stalf and Chief Financial Officer Greg Bell allowed family members to live in houses owned or controlled by the zoo, and internal zoo emails showed the two men sought tickets for their family members to attend various entertainment events, The Dispatch found.

The properties were not advertised for rent or offered to outsiders or other zoo employees. Zoo officials said the homes were leased for below-market rent in exchange for the residents making improvements to the property. The zoo has written lease agreements for the properties it rents, but officials would not provide copies of them or share how much rent it charged family members. Such agreements are proprietary and contain confidential information concerning third parties, the zoo said. 

This house on the Northwest Side is where the in-laws of Columbus Zoo's 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.

Internal zoo emails also showed Stalf and Bell sought the use of the zoo's suites and tickets to local entertainment venues for themselves and their family members between 2013 and 2019. Most of the tickets requested were available through the zoo's marketing contracts with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Ohio State University, and were intended for hosting zoo supporters and building donor and sponsor relations.

Ohio Ethics Commission must take formal action to initiate an investigation into Columbus Zoo executives

The Ohio Ethics Commission's board, which next meets on Friday, must take action for an investigation to formally begin, Nick said.

But if the commission's board authorizes an investigation into the zoo, the public might not know for weeks — or ever.

All information pertaining to ongoing investigations, including whether they're happening, is confidential, Nick said. Investigative information only becomes a public record if the commission reaches a settlement or refers a case for criminal prosecution.

Nick said anyone with information that could assist a potential investigation can contact the Ohio Ethics Commission and will be kept confidential.

Any investigation by the Ohio Ethics Commission would be separate from an internal review also underway by the zoo's board of directors. That review is expected to take two to three weeks.  

"What we do know is the Zoo’s Board Chairman, Keith Shumate, proactively convened a group of Board members who are assessing the documentation and facts regarding the issues raised in the article,"  Gómez Racey said in a written statement. "They will then report findings to the full board.

"Until the review process is complete, it would be inappropriate for Zoo officials to make further comments," Gómez Racey said. 

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One issue that is complicating the matter is whether the zoo's officials can be considered public employees under the state's ethics laws, Nick said.

"State law prohibits public officials and employees from engaging in some of the behavior (The Dispatch) reported on, but the question is, 'Do they fit under that category?'" Nick said.

The zoo is a nonprofit organization, but it also 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.

Franklin County and the city of Columbus own most of the zoo land.

The city and county commissioners also appoint six members each to a public-appointed board that administers the zoo's tax levy receipts. The zoo also appoints six members to that board. 

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is listed as an employer in the database of the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System, meaning some of its employees receive public pensions.