Ex-Columbus Zoo CEO to repay $400,000 audit said he owed


COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A former chief executive officer has agreed to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium after audits concluded that improper spending and questionable business practices cost the institution more than $630,000.

The zoo’s board of directors on Friday announced approval of a settlement with former CEO Thomas Stalf for $400,000, which an August 2021 forensic audit said he received inappropriately.

The Columbus Dispatch reports that Stalf’s attorney, Rex Elliott, said his client agreed to pay back the money so that he could move forward with his life — but he said the zoo was well aware of Stalf’s actions and alleged that officials had made his client a scapegoat.

In January, the zoo announced settlements with two other former top officials. The board approved a $132,000 settlement with former chief financial officer Greg Bell and said former purchasing director Tracy Murnane agreed to repay $11,000, officials said. Discussions continue with with former marketing vice president Peter Fingerhut, who officials have alleged owes the zoo just under $57,000.

Stalf and Bell both resigned nearly a year ago after an investigation by the newspaper found they allowed relatives to live in houses owned or controlled by the zoo and sought tickets for family members to zoo entertainment events.

Elliott said in a statement that Stalf agreed to resolve the mater “after the zoo made clear the goal was to pursue every means possible to destroy him.”

“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,” he said, adding that his client’s work had improved the zoo’s national profile and increased its revenues.

Zoo board chairperson Keith Shumate said son of the zoo board, told the paper that the zoo has “a different view of things,” and stands by the forensic audit’s conclusions. Shumate said the settlement will allow the zoo to move forward and focus on “what we should be doing: animal welfare and providing the community with a first-rate zoo.”