Columbus Zoo Board Silent on Indictments, but Approves $35m Upgrade to North American Region


Columbus Zoo and Aquarium board members made no mention during their meeting Wednesday of the indictment of three of its former executives for theft and other felony charges two days earlier, proceeding with business as usual.

The board did, however, approve a $35-million construction project to redevelop and update the zoo’s North American region, which is its second-largest region and the oldest at nearly 40 years. Some of the animals on exhibit there include bison, black bear, moose, reindeer, river otter, wolverine, beaver and trumpeter swans. The region also features a wetlands area and an aviary featuring dozens of species of birds.

In addition to animals, the North America region sponsored by Nationwide includes the seasonal train ride that circles the region and travels past the open plains exhibits, the Bob Evans My Barn farm animal petting area, and the seasonal pony and camel rides.

Tom Schmid, zoo president and CEO, said the zoo has raised about $26.5 million of the funds needed for the project.

In other action, the board approved one vacancy set to occur on the board as it moves to reduce its size as part of a memorandum of understanding agreement reached earlier this year with Franklin County and the city of Columbus.

The agreement does away with the zoo’s two-board system in favor of one nonprofit board. The board is allowed up to 19 members, including four members each appointed by the city of Columbus and Franklin County.

After the meeting, Schmid told The Dispatch the zoo board would be reduced to 19 members by January, as required by the agreement, with “four or five” members ending their second three-year terms by that time and one resulting vacancy being filled.

On Monday, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced a Delaware County grand jury had issued a 90-count indictment against three former Columbus Zoo and Aquarium executives: Thomas E. Stalf, former CEO; Peter A. Fingerhut, former marketing director, and Gregory A. Bell, former chief financial officer.

Yost said the executives “extorted, conspired, bribed and stole” zoo funds while colluding with each other before a 2021 Dispatch investigation uncovered wrongdoing by the executives. The group is responsible for more than $2.2 million in lost funds, he said.

In an interview with The Dispatch, Schmid thanked the attorney general and his office for their work in investigating the wrongdoing, and said he was excited for the future of the zoo.

The zoo’s agreement with the city and the county also includes tighter financial controls over zoo spending of countywide levy money in the wake of the scandal involving its former executives.

During the meeting, the board’s the board’s levy review committee announced the approval of a $7.7 million reimbursement payment for zoo expenditures and heard that the results of a 2022 financial audit review were positive.

Source : Dispatch