Three former Columbus Zoo and Aquarium executives were indicted on Monday, accused of scheming to defraud the nonprofit zoo out of more than $2 million and spending the money on trips, concert tickets and vehicles, the Ohio attorney general said.
Tom Stalf, the zoo’s former chief executive; Pete Fingerhut, a former marketing director; and Greg Bell, a former chief financial officer, face a combined 90 felony counts in the indictment, which was filed in Delaware County Common Pleas Court in Ohio.
Dave Yost, the Ohio attorney general, said at a news conference on Monday that the three men “extorted, conspired, bribed and stole” more than $2 million “that belonged to a charitable organization.”
“In simple terms: The bank hired the robbers to work security,” Mr. Yost said.
The charges Mr. Stalf, Mr. Bell and Mr. Fingerhut face include aggravated theft, conspiracy and tampering with records. Mr. Stalf and Mr. Fingerhut also face felony charges of bribery, conspiracy and money laundering. Mr. Fingerhut faces two counts of extortion. If convicted, the men face three to 11 years in prison, according to the Ohio attorney general’s office.
Mr. Yost said that the three former executives had been taking money from the zoo for more than a decade using a number of methods, such as filing false state and federal tax returns and tampering with internal reports.
Through their scheme, the three zoo officials were able to pay for tickets to concerts and sporting events, meals, alcohol and vehicles, as well as trips across the United States and abroad, according to the indictment. In some cases, the authorities said, zoo tickets were exchanged for tickets to concerts by artists such as Drake, Kanye West, Jay-Z and Lana Del Rey.
In 2016, tickets to the zoo were exchanged for access to Game 6 of the World Series in Cleveland, according to the indictment. In a separate instance, the attorney general’s office said, Mr. Fingerhut threatened a vendor’s business opportunities with the zoo unless Mr. Fingerhut was given large amounts of money.
Mr. Bell was accused of falsifying and signing expense forms, “knowing that the expenses and the reasons provided for the expenses were false,” Mr. Yost said, adding that the three men worked together to hide the scheme.
“If anyone of them had said, ‘I’m not going to have any part of this, this is wrong,’ it would have ended right there,” Mr. Yost said. “They worked around the system.”
Samuel Shamansky, a lawyer for Mr. Bell, said on Tuesday that he and his client were expecting the indictment and that “it accurately reflects the government’s view of Mr. Bell’s misconduct.”
“Greg has accepted responsibility for his behavior and has been remorseful for the same since this matter first came to light,” Mr. Shamansky said.
Mr. Stalf’s lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday. Mr. Fingerhut could not be reached, and it was not clear if he had a lawyer.
At the news conference, Mr. Yost credited The Columbus Dispatch, which published an investigation in 2021 that revealed questionable spending by zoo officials.
Mr. Stalf and Mr. Bell resigned in March 2021 after an internal report focusing on their personal use of zoo assets, according to the Ohio attorney general’s office. By that point, Mr. Fingerhut had already lost his job as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the attorney general’s office said.
The zoo said in a statement on Monday that the indictment “closes a chapter on the challenges the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium faced in 2021 leading to the removal of former staff and thorough examination and restructuring under new leadership.”
The zoo said that, since 2021, it had also cut ties with several vendors, hired a new auditing firm and reduced the size of its board of directors.
Mr. Yost said that additional charges in the case could be filed later.
“These three did not act without the knowledge of others,” he said.