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Former Multifest director sentenced to 21 months in prison

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The former head of an annual Charleston festival will spend nearly two years in federal prison on tax fraud charges linked to her theft of more than $300,000 from the event's books

A judge sentenced former Multifest executive director Deborah Starks Tuesday to 21 months in prison for failing to report more than half a million dollars to the Internal Revenue Service.

Starks admitted last year that she filed at least one false tax return to cover for a five-year embezzlement scheme into the festival.

"I dedicated 23 years of my life to Multifest," Starks said Tuesday before U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver. Her husband, Stephen Starks, started the festival in 1989.

"Never did I want to hurt Multifest in any way. It's always been a labor of love," she said.

Deborah Starks was treasurer of Multifest at the time of the scheme, and was in charge of revenue and expenses. A 2011 tax form indicates that the event gained more than $100,000 in sponsorship revenue that year alone. Some $35,000 of that money came from city and state entities.

Starks admitted that from 2005 to 2010, she sapped about $306,000 from Multifest and failed to report an additional $200,000 to the IRS. She said that she wrote checks to herself and to others, withdrew cash from those checks, and made ATM transactions from Multifest bank accounts. She used much of the money to fuel a gambling addiction, she said.

"I think the amount of money came as much as a surprise to Ms. Starks as it did to anyone else," her lawyer, Bill Murray, said Tuesday.

Starks admitted that she did not report the embezzled funds on her income tax forms. Her guilty plea centered around one instance in 2008, when she reported to the government that she earned only $13,872.

Copenhaver ordered Starks to repay Multifest the full $306,872 in restitution along with the $128,626 to the IRS. She paid $4,368 of that restitution Tuesday. The judge also ordered Starks to repay the restitution in monthly installments of $250 when she is released from prison. She is currently collecting unemployment benefits, she said.

After initially vowing to pull funding from Multifest, Charleston and Kanawha County officials said they would continue to support the event as long as the Starks are not involved.

The Multifest board of directors fired Steven Starks from his position as president after he told media outlets that he would continue work on the festival <co please embed http://www.wvgazette.com/News/201301210177>;.

 Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said that, in addition to Deborah and Steven Starks' complete removal, city and county officials have insisted that the board hire an accountant to monitor the books.

"It's just an absolute criminal offense and an inexcusable crime to steal," Carper said. "Having said that this is a good lesson to be learned about the lack of vigilance and oversight of nonprofits."

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


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