Former Columbus Zoo CEO Tom Stalf to pay back $400,000; attorney says he was 'scapegoat'
Former Columbus Zoo and Aquarium CEO Tom Stalf has agreed to pay back $400,000 after investigations last year found that he and other top officials misused zoo resources, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses for the taxpayer-supported nonprofit.
The zoo board of directors unanimously approved the settlement Friday morning, chairman Keith Shumate said.
Stalf agreed to pay back the money so that he could move forward with his life, according to his attorney, Rex Elliott. But the zoo was well aware of Stalf's actions and has made him a scapegoat, the attorney said.
Stalf’s settlement agreement comes nearly a year after he and former zoo chief financial officer Greg Bell resigned following a Dispatch investigation that revealed their improper use of zoo resources. The two men allowed their relatives to live in zoo-owned properties at below-market rents, and sought tickets and suites to concerts and entertainment events — resources intended for hosting zoo supporters and building donor relations — for themselves and their family members.
Numerous zoo and outside investigations followed, and in August, a forensic audit concluded that misspending and questionable business practices by Stalf, Bell and two other zoo employees resulted in at least $631,000 in losses for the zoo.
In their report, auditors described an “overall culture of entitlement” among the zoo executives, and concluded that they used zoo assets improperly for personal items, including concert tickets, golf memberships, Amazon purchases, vehicles, trips and World Series tickets.
Following the forensic audits, zoo board members said the zoo planned to pursue recovery of the losses, including civil lawsuits, if necessary.
Shumate said Friday's settlement with Stalf allows the zoo to move forward and focus on "what we should be doing: animal welfare and providing the community with a first-rate zoo."
Elliott, Stalf's attorney, said in a written statement Friday that the $400,000 settlement is "a high price to pay and completely without merit," but allows the former CEO to move forward without a lengthy legal battle with the zoo or hundreds of thousands in legal fees. He said zoo leaders knew about each of Stalf's expenses that have since been deemed improper.
"Tom Stalf agreed to resolve this matter after the zoo made clear the goal was to pursue every means possible to destroy him," Elliott said in the statement. "The zoo made Mr. Stalf a scapegoat even though they knew about and audited every expenditure it now claims was improper. The expenditures at issue passed annual, formal audits."
Shumate said the zoo has "a different view of things," and stands by what the forensic audit reports concluded.
Elliott added that Stalf's work improved the zoo's national profile and increased its revenues.
"Mr. Stalf only agreed to settle this now and pay money he doesn’t owe out of concern for his family and to move forward with his life," Elliott said. "Mr. Stalf hopes to now put this nightmare and all the good he did for the zoo as far into the rear-view mirror as he possibly can."
Bell had already agreed in January to pay back $132,000 to the zoo.
Forensic auditors also determined two other former zoo employees were responsible for tens of thousands of dollars in losses: Pete Fingerhut, the zoo's former vice president of marketing and sales, was responsible for nearly $57,000 in losses, and Tracy Murnane, former director of purchasing, was responsible for nearly $13,000, the audit reports said.
Murnane agreed in January to pay the zoo back $11,000.
Shumate said Friday the zoo has not yet reached a settlement agreement with Fingerhut, but discussions are ongoing, and the board is prepared to pursue legal action against him if necessary.