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.