CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The former treasurer for Multifest will spend the next 21 months in federal prison after admitting to stealing more than $300,000 from the long running multi-cultural festival to fuel a gambling addiction and failing to report that money on her tax returns.
U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver sentenced Deborah S. Starks, 55, of Cross Lanes Tuesday.
"Ms. Starks failed to report more than half a million dollars of income on her taxes," U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said in a statement. "More than $300,000 of that unreported income was money she stole from Multifest.
"Stealing $300,000 from a small business or charity could easily put that organization out of business. That's why my office has focused on investigating and prosecuting cases like these, to protect small businesses and charities and send a clear message that stealing from them won't be tolerated."
Starks admitted in January that she filed a false tax return in connection with the embezzlement scheme, which drained a little more than $300,000 from the festival's accounts from 2005 to 2010. She was the festival's treasurer at the time.
She admitted to writing checks to herself and to other people, withdrawing cash and using ATMs to tap the Multifest accounts.
She admitted failing to report the embezzled funds in the joint federal tax returns she filed from 2005 to 2010.
Bill Murray, her attorney, told the court Tuesday during her sentencing hearing that Starks had been the sole breadwinner for her family "for some time."
He said she was the primary caregiver for a young grandchild and her husband, Steve Starks, the founder of Multifest and former board president, had suffered health issues.
Murray said his client had been receiving unemployment benefits since being terminated from her position at Blue Cross Blue Shield in December 2012. He told the judge that sending her to prison would put the family's finances in jeopardy.
She spoke about her dedication to the festival, which is held in August on the grounds of the Capitol Complex.
"I dedicated 23 years of my life to Multifest," Starks told U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver. "My husband created it. I worked hard ... I was a one-woman-show."
She said she made bad choices and didn't keep proper records for the organization but wished she had. Starks said she never intended to hurt the festival.
"I beg you, please, have mercy," she said as she stood before Copenhaver's bench.
The judge said he recognized that she wasn't without good qualities, noting that he had received two letters regarding her character before the sentencing, but he pointed out her history.
He said she had been convicted three times for passing worthless checks and in 16 other instances such charges were dismissed.
He also recognized that some of the money taken went to feed her gambling addiction.