3 On Your Side investigation triggers in-depth audit of Jackson Zoo

Council votes unanimously to approve forensic auditor for deep dive into zoo’s finances

3 On Your Side investigation triggers in-depth audit of Jackson Zoo

JACKSON, MS (WLBT) - A 3 On Your Side investigation into the Jackson Zoo’s finances is now prompting city leaders to take matters into their own hands by hiring an outside firm to audit everything.

The Jackson City Council voted unanimously to approve a forensic auditor to determine the extent of apparent financial inconsistencies documented by WLBT over a weeks-long analysis.

The move came two weeks after WLBT sent the city evidence that revenue and expenses zoo staff shared with the public through the facility’s annual reports didn’t match what the Jackson Zoological Society submitted through its CPA to the Internal Revenue Service and what it shared with the city in yearly audits.

The biggest revenue difference between the annual reports and the 990 forms filed with the IRS came in 2012, where zoo officials underreported more than a million dollars on those annual reports accessible through the zoo’s website.

The very next year, those same reports showed the zoo made $2.6 million in revenue, but the 990s filed with the IRS showed they made half a million less.

While it’s not against the law for those amounts in the zoo’s annual reports to be different from the ones provided to the IRS, the change in numbers appears to convey a false impression to the public.

That’s the main takeaway Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s office got from the evidence we provided them.

“I appreciate the investigation into it, and that not being my area of expertise, I think that I need counsel from someone who can better inform the city as to what those numbers mean, what errors may have taken place, and what does that truly bring us as a city?” Lumumba said.

Beth Poff, executive director of the Jackson Zoo (Source: WLBT)
Beth Poff, executive director of the Jackson Zoo (Source: WLBT)

Two months ago, former zoo executive director Beth Poff resigned after news surfaced that she had misused state bond money to pay for the facility’s operating expenses, including payroll.

A closer look at the zoo’s audits show that practice has been going on since at least 2011.

The documents show the zoo (presumably, the executive director) misappropriated a total of $1.5 million over a seven-year period, with that money paid back typically at the start of the next fiscal year.

This breakdown from the Jackson Zoo's yearly audits shows how much money had been misused for operational expenses each year: $1.5 million from 2011 to 2017. (Source: WLBT)
This breakdown from the Jackson Zoo's yearly audits shows how much money had been misused for operational expenses each year: $1.5 million from 2011 to 2017. (Source: WLBT)

3 On Your Side also learned that the zoo’s own board members likely knew about the misappropriation because it came out in audits every year.

That’s partly why Lumumba wants to be able to start from scratch in terms of the zoo’s management.

“I think that we certainly can do better with the zoo, and by performing this audit, this is how we make heads or tails of whose responsibility was what," Lumumba said. “I don’t think we can move forward without doing our due diligence to truly understand what the finances of our Jackson Zoo are.”

3 On Your Side reached out to former zoo board president Jeffrey Graves and interim zoo executive director David Wetzel to ask about these discrepancies, but received no response.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated Jeffrey Graves was the current zoo board president when in fact he left the zoo board last month. Alex Chess serves as the current zoo board president.

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