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Multifest official pleads guilty to tax evasion

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A longtime organizer of Charleston's annual multicultural festival admitted Friday to stealing more than $300,000 from the event and lying on her federal income tax forms.

Debbie Starks, whose husband Steven Starks started the late-summer Multifest festival in 1989, pleaded guilty Friday to tax evasion by way of an information in U.S. District Court in Charleston. Prosecutors have said Debbie Starks was the event's treasurer.

An information is a court document that generally indicates a defendant is willing to cooperate with the government.

Federal prosecutors said Starks admitted to embezzling $306,872 from Multifest from 2005 to 2010 and failed to report an additional $128,626 in taxable income to the Internal Revenue Service during that time. Her guilty plea centered on one instance in 2008, when she reported that she earned only $13,872.

"I am very, very sorry," Starks said Friday, later adding, "I should have paid taxes on that money."

Starks, of Cross Lanes, wrote and cashed personal checks to herself and to "third parties," mostly to fuel a gambling addiction. She also directly transferred money from the Multifest account into her own accounts and the accounts of family members, according to the plea agreement.

She prepared, signed and filed a joint U.S. individual income tax form from 2005 to 2010, essentially neglecting to report about $500,000 of taxable income. During those years, Starks said she earned amounts ranging from $15,000 to $28,000, the agreement states.

Starks said during Friday's hearing that her husband signed off on the 2008 return but was not present when it was prepared.

The future of Multifest, which draws thousands of people every year and features a bevy of well-known musicians, was unclear as of Friday.

County officials, however, say that the festival and its organizers have lost their support as long as the Starks are at the helm.

"As far as I'm concerned, they're cut off," Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said.

Earlier this year, the commissioners agreed to pay Multifest $11,500 after the Convention and Visitor's Bureau slashed its funding for the event. Carper, however, in light of discovering what he called "disturbing information" about Starks, elected to pay the event's vendors directly.

"The community suffers here," Carper said, "[Multifest] served a wonderful purpose. It was a good event to the community. But clearly, they stole hundreds of thousands of dollars of private and public funds, so they're cut off as far as I'm concerned."

Carper said future organizers of the event must prove to be competent and scrupulous if they are to receive county funding.

Starks' plea agreement, released publicly Friday, is dated May 18 - four days after the commission agreed to provide Multifest with the additional funds.

Multifest's corporate status was revoked in 1999 and reinstated only last year. Additionally, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant sent Multifest organizers a letter in August 2011, stating that the festival was not properly recognized as a charitable organization and should not be soliciting donors.

However, the registration issues appear to have been resolved for now. The Secretary of State's Office now recognizes Multifest as a nonprofit charitable organization. The event received more than $100,000 in total contributions, according to its most recent financial report. The registration as a charitable organization expires in May.

Stephen Starks is listed as president and incorporator. Vicky Keene, of 501 Nancy Street, is listed as the event's secretary. Lenora Horton, of 1631 Red Oak Street, is listed as treasurer and Joseph Loyd, of Bidwell, Ohio, is listed as vice president.

Other than a listing for her apparent email address under the organization's contact information, Debbie Starks is not listed as an officer of Multifest, despite representations by prosecutors that she is the treasurer.

Keene, Horton and Loyd could not be reached for comment. A phone call placed to the organization was not returned.

During Friday's hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eumi L. Choi said Starks had a "concerning" criminal history that included a string of worthless-check charges. U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver set Starks' bail at $10,000 and warned her that it will be immediately revoked if she bounces another check.

As part of the plea, Starks agreed to repay the full $128,626 in unreported income to the IRS and $306,872 to Multifest, with the latter sum presumably paid back to the event's sponsors. Carper and U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said it's unlikely that the Starks have enough assets to immediately make up for the loss.

"If they have the money to pay for restitution, I'll be pleasantly surprised, shocked and stunned," Carper said.

Starks agreed to cooperate with the government in future investigations with the understanding that she may be named as an "unindicted co-conspirator" in other grand jury proceedings.

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


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