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Multifest organizer does not plan to leave event

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Multifest organizer Stephen Starks said Tuesday that he will continue in a leadership position on the event's board despite his wife having admitted to stealing more than $300,000 from the festival's books.

In light of assertions from public officials that they will halt funding for Charleston's late summer multicultural festival unless Stephen and Deborah Starks are ousted, and indications from other sponsors that they will support the event as it "reorganizes," Starks said he would maintain a background role as a Multifest board member.

"We're anticipating that we certainly plan on having Multifest," Starks told the Gazette. "We have restructured our board and organization so that everyone can be assured that everything is appropriate."

Some sponsors were not specific about what type of reorganization of Multifest they would like to see.

Earlier this month, Starks' wife, Deborah, pleaded guilty to tax evasion charges and admitted to embezzling $306,872 from Multifest from 2005 to 2010. Federal prosecutors said Deborah Starks, who was struggling with a gambling addiction, wrote and cashed personal checks to herself and directly transferred money from a Multifest bank account into her own.

Her guilty plea centered on one instance in 2008, when she reported that she earned only $13,872. Her husband signed off on the tax form, but did not help prepare it, she said during the plea hearing. He was not charged in the scheme.

Stephen Starks said that he has resigned from his post as president of Multifest and that the structure of the event's executive board has been reorganized. His wife will no longer be involved, he said.

Asked if he would consider completely severing himself from Multifest if sponsors demanded it, Starks said, "I don't know about that. I'm not going to answer that question."

"Again, I'm not charged with anything, I just want the best for Multifest. That's all I can say at this point," he said.

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said Tuesday that the city, which spends an average of $12,500 a year on the event, would not support Multifest if Starks is serving in any organizational or official capacity.

"I can't imagine voting for more money for that event," Jones said. "Multifest took the city for a lot of money and that money belongs to the taxpayers."

Kanawha County Commissioner Kent Carper echoed similar sentiment when Deborah Starks pleaded guilty this month.

"Make no mistake about it, it was a good event," Carper said. "It was good for the community, but they did this to themselves."

In 2011, city and state entities made up about $35,000 of Multifest's $100,000 in sponsorship revenue, according to the most recent tax forms the Starks' filed with the secretary of state.

Corporate donors like Toyota, Suddenlink, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield and Kroger made up another $35,000 of sponsorship funds that year, with Toyota alone contributing $22,000.

A Toyota spokesperson said company officials are still discussing whether to continue to support Multifest.

Highmark's West Virginia President Fred Earley said in a prepared statement that the company supports Multifest, but added they will "closely follow the lead of state and local government leaders in making sure that this important Charleston festival is reorganized..."

West Virginia University spent $7,000 on a booth rental, while West Virginia State University spent $5,000, according to the 2011 tax form.

"We would like to see it continue despite recent unfortunate issues," WVU Chief Diversity Officer David Fryson said. "We believe our state needs this diversity effort and, as it restructures, we hope to continue our support."

Nick Keller, the executive director of the Central West Virginia Convention and Visitors Bureau, which spends $10,000 to $15,000 on Multifest every year, said that his board would likely cut off the event as long as the Starks are still involved.

Stephen Starks would not answer questions about how his wife was able to sap $300,000 from the organization without him knowing.

"I can't respond to anything about that at this point," he said. "I will respond at a proper time."

Reach Zac Taylor at zachary.taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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