Columbus Zoo won't share investigation details; Commissioners call for transparency

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium said it will not share details of the investigation that led to the resignations of the two top zoo executives.

Franklin County officials are calling for more transparency from the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium following the resignations of the top two zoo executives Monday. 

Meanwhile, zoo officials said they will not be sharing details of the investigation into the personal use of zoo resources by President and CEO Tom Stalf and Chief Financial Officer Greg Bell.

More:Columbus Zoo: Top officials resign following Dispatch investigation

In a written statement Tuesday, the Franklin County Board of Commissioners said they are seeking additional details about the status of the zoo's investigation and called for the findings of the investigation to be made public.

Stalf and Bell resigned voluntarily Monday amid an independent review ordered by the zoo board of directors following a Dispatch investigation into the executives' personal use of zoo assets. 

"The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is not only a world-class attraction for our community, but also a community investment," the commissioners said in a written statement. "It requires world-class leadership, appropriate community oversight, transparency, and that there be no hint of any impropriety in the management of the county taxpayers’ funds."

The zoo board of directors hired Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations, and the firm delivered their findings to board members in a meeting Monday evening, zoo spokesman Nicolle Gomez Racey said in a statement. 

Keith Shumate, chairman of the board of directors, told The Dispatch on Tuesday that the first phase of the review, focused on the allegations surrounding Stalf and Bell, is complete. The next phase, which includes evaluating the zoo's policies, procedures and practices, continues, he said. 

Shumate said the investigation reports, which were given orally, are confidential. 

"We don't plan on sharing the details of the report," he said, adding, "We believe it's confidential, but obviously we've got legal counsel that will advise us on those issues."

Gomez Racey reiterated that there will be no further details regarding the investigation and referred to the zoo's initial statement Monday evening. 

"These sessions are confidential; and there will be no written report or summary of the findings from the meeting," Gomez Racey said in an email. "... The board and the zoo have issued the only statement regarding the review finding and executive resignations and will be making no further comment."

The board met for nearly two and a half hours Monday night, mostly in executive session. When the board reconvened in public session, they approved a motion not to extend any severance pay to Stalf.

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. Those board members were also part of Monday's meeting. 

The commissioners planned to reach out Tuesday to the zoo board members they appointed "to see where the investigation stands at this point and what the next steps may be," Tyler Lowry, spokesman for the Franklin County Board of Commissioners, said in a written statement. County and city officials, including Kevin Boyce, president of the Franklin County Board of Commissioners, are also listed as ex-officio members of the zoo's board of directors. 

"Regardless, whenever the review is final, we think it’s important that the results are made available to the public," Lowry said.

Shumate would not comment on the commissioners' call for the public release of the investigation findings. 

Paul Nick, executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission, said it has also reached out to the zoo to request a copy of the information presented Monday.

The commission investigates potential violations of state law related to the misuse and abuse of public offices, including conflicts of interest. It is considering an investigation into Stalf and Bell and whether they violated Ohio law, but is still trying to determine whether the zoo, which is both a nonprofit organization and taxpayer-supported, falls under its jurisdiction, Nick said. It was also waiting for the results of the board's review.

If an investigation occurs, the commission would have the authority to subpoena such information to be released, he said.

In the zoo's Monday statement, Gomez Racey said the zoo board was aware the ethics commission was considering a review, and said the zoo will cooperate with their work.

The commissioners also said the zoo's investigation process "must also include a review of the current governance structure of the zoo."

Lowry said the county commissioners want to make sure that the zoo's current governance structure of two boards, with members appointed in different ways, is evaluated and clearly communicated, especially as the zoo begins the process to hire new leadership. 

The zoo board will begin a national search for a new CEO immediately, zoo officials said. Former Zoo Executive Director and Director Emeritus Jerry Borin has agreed to come out of retirement to serve as the zoo's interim executive director in the meantime. 

Borin returned to the zoo Tuesday, Gomez Racey said, "and began his role by meetings with team members and making plans for the busy season ahead."    

Executives' use of zoo resources

Stalf, 52, and Bell, 61, allowed relatives to live in houses owned or controlled by the zoo, and sought zoo tickets for their family members to attend various entertainment events, a Dispatch investigation found. 

Zoo officials said the homes in question were leased for below-market rent in exchange for the residents making improvements to the property. The homes were not advertised for rent or offered to outsiders or other zoo employees. Zoo officials refused to provide copies of the zoo's written lease agreements or share how much rent it charged family members. 

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. 

Reactions to Stalf's, Bell's resignations

Former Zoo Director Jack Hanna, who retired as director emeritus in December 2020, had known Stalf professionally and as a friend for years prior to them working together in Columbus. 

In a written statement issued through a spokeswoman Monday night, the Hanna family thanked the zoo board "for doing a thorough investigation."

"The Columbus Zoo will move forward and the team will continue to be world leaders in animal care, conservation, and education," the statement said. 

Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, of which the Columbus zoo is a member, called Stalf an "established and respected leader within the accredited zoo and aquarium community.

"We are grateful for his important contributions to the community and are sorry to see him leave Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and The Wilds," Ashe said in a written statement Tuesday. "AZA will work with the professional staff at both facilities while they transition to new leadership.”

Member zoos of the AZA agree to follow a code of professional ethics. One of its obligations, which are described as "aspirational in character," is to "maintain high standards of personal, professional, and business conduct and behavior."

Rob Vernon, spokesman for the association, said he could not confirm whether any complaints regarding the Columbus Zoo had been filed with the association's ethics board. All complaints are confidential unless the board finds a violation of the code and imposes a sanction, he said.