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Multifest board drops Starks as president

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Multifest board members said Monday that they have severed ties with the event's longtime organizer and asked city and county officials to back down on promises to yank funding in light of a crippling embezzlement scandal.

Multifest Executive Director Vicky Keene said in a Monday news release that the board has removed founder Stephen Starks from his position as president and offered assurances that he will no longer have any involvement with the annual multicultural festival he started in 1989.

Starks' wife, Deborah, pleaded guilty this month to federal tax fraud charges and admitted to embezzling more than $300,000 from Multifest from 2005 to 2010. Starks said last week that he intended to resign as president but would hold a "background" role in Multifest's organizational structure, pointing out that he was not charged in relation to his wife's tax fraud and embezzlement.

But he said Monday that he phoned a board member after that story ran in the Wednesday Gazette and voluntarily removed himself in light of sponsorship concerns. He said he did not understand why the board decided to issue a news release.

"It's just very curious to me," he said. "I think the board has been intimidated and they just want to protect the organization."

Keene said the board actually removed Starks on Jan. 14. He was not authorized to speak to the media on Multifest's behalf, she said.

Kanawha County Commissioner Kent Carper and Charleston Mayor Danny Jones have vowed to cut off funding from Multifest. Both leaders have said they would not consider giving more money to the festival as long as Stephen and Deborah Starks are involved.

West Virginia University and Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield officials told the Gazette they would support the event as it "restructures" and "reorganizes," but they were not specific about what restructuring they would like to see.

City and state entities make up about $35,000 of Multifest's $100,000 in sponsorship revenue, with corporations and small businesses contributing another $35,000, according to the most recent tax forms filed with the Secretary of State's Office.  

Universities and other small donors make up the final portion of the funding stream, according to the tax forms.

Officials from Toyota, which contributed $22,000 to Multifest in 2011, have not yet made a decision about whether to fund the festival this year.

Starks said he did not know the full extent of the event's sponsorship picture until after he spoke to the media last week. He said that he wasn't sure at the time that he wanted to separate himself from Multifest.

"I did want to see if anything could be salvaged out of it; then, when it looked as if the extent of funding was in jeopardy, I didn't want to harm Multifest," he said.

Starks said he learned from a board member that sponsors were becoming more hesitant.

"I knew that there was some animus with the city and the county, and I really didn't realize the extent with other corporate sponsors," he said.

According to the board's news release, the Rev. Roy Terry will serve as president, Joseph Lloyd as vice president, Keene as executive director, Francis Sherin as secretary and Lenora Horton as treasurer.

"We, the officers and directors of Multifest, would like to assure the people of West Virginia of our steadfast determination to continue Multifest's mission and ask for the continued support of the people of the city of Charleston and the state of West Virginia," the release states.

Multifest organizers will meet with sponsors to discuss the board's new structure, the release states. Those with questions are asked to call Jackie Gary at 304-766-8430 or 304-550-3352.

This year's event is scheduled to take place Aug. 2-4, the release states.

Starks said Monday he wanted to do what was best for Multifest by stepping down and reiterated that he had not been charged with a crime as a result of his wife's misdeeds.

"I hope that my service to the community has been noted," he said. "I certainly have always tried to carry myself with integrity."

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


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