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Dane County Sheriff: No criminal conduct found with Vilas Zoo society's use of donations

Dane County Sheriff: No criminal conduct found with Vilas Zoo society's use of donations

Polar bears at Henry Vilas Zoo

A pair of polar bears wrestle in the water at the Henry Vilas Zoo in 2017.

A Dane County Sheriff’s Office-led investigation into alleged donation discrepancies at the Henry Vilas Zoo did not find any criminal misconduct on the part of the Zoological Society or any employee.

"We have determined that the donations initially in question are accounted for," according to the Dane County Sheriff's Office in a press release Tuesday.

The Dane County District Attorney’s Office agreed with the findings.

“After reviewing all the information, (Assistant District Attorney Paul Humphrey), did not believe there was an intentional act, from the Zoological Society, of any theft or fraud that is consistent with embezzlement or misappropriation of funds,” Dane County Sheriff’s Office Detective Janet Boehnen said in a Dec. 10 report following a case review with the District Attorney’s Office.

The Society said it is “pleased” with the sheriff’s office findings.

“The Society has always prided itself on sound financial oversight and public transparency,” the Society said in a statement. “The Society followed industry best practices, including hiring independent auditors on an annual basis and sharing the results publicly.”

Last November, county officials raised concerns over cash donations left in donor tubes and greeter boxes at the zoo. The concerns came months after Dane County broke off its relationship with the Henry Vilas Zoological Society, which was responsible for operations and depositing donations from the greeter boxes and donor tubes.

Starting April 1, Dane County has been in charge of operations and donations.

Donations at the zoo were typically collected twice a week by two individuals who would place cash donations into individual bank bags — one per tube — according to the investigation. After the money was counted, the donations were placed in a safe until an armored vehicle picked up the bags and took them to the bank.

According to the investigation, the Society donor tube and greeter box donations totaled $222,152 in 2017. In 2018, donations from both types of donation locations totaled $200,721.33.

In 2019, the Dane County Controller’s Office reported approximately $192,142.15 in donations from greeter boxes and donor tubes.

The Zoological Society used the accounting software QuickBooks to keep records of the donations, Kollath Accounting firm kept the records in order and Wegner CPA completed audit reports for the society, according to the investigation.

“Regardless if the Zoological Society counted the donor tubes separately of the greeter boxes, all the money had been deposited into a designated bank account specific to the Zoological Society,” Boehnen said in the report. “There was no indication the money deposited was for nothing else, but to support the zoo.”

Last month, the Society announced plans to transfer a remaining $8 million in funds to the Madison Community Foundation, which will use them to support the zoo. Also, the Society transferred $593,000 in donations to the zoo. 

Dane County Deputy Corporation Counsel Carlos Pabellón said in a statement that the investigation clarified that the Societ accounted for the cash donations differently and that they were not previously included in financial documents provided to the zoo or county. 

“With the Sheriff's investigation now closed and the recently executed agreement providing the Zoo with the collection box donations, we are satisfied that the community's donations have been directed toward supporting the Zoo,” Pabellón said in the statement. 

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