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Former Multifest treasurer sentenced to 21 months for embezzlement

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.

Starks told the court she hadn't gambled in more than a year and had been to counseling.

Copenhaver sentenced Starks to 21 months of imprisonment and a year of supervised release afterward.

Starks also is to pay $306,694 in restitution to Multifest and $128,626 in restitution to the IRS, according to the terms of her guilty plea.

She was not fined, as the judge said she likely wouldn't be able to afford the fine and restitution.

Murray told the court at the beginning of the proceedings that Starks had been able to liquidate a small 401(k) retirement plan and had a check for $4,368 ready for the court to put toward restitution.

Copenhaver ordered her to pay $250 per month in restitution upon her release from prison. The restitution would be applied proportionally to the two entities unless the IRS deferred to Multifest.

While she is sentenced to a year of supervised release, the maximum allotted for her offense, the judge expressed regret that he could not sentence her to more time.

"That's one of the frailties of the law on this," he said. "If Congress was thinking straight, they would have made it three to five years to make sure you made your payments."

If she makes payments of $250 per month toward the $430,952 she still owes in restitution, it will take 1,723 months, or 143 years, to pay it off. 

Earlier Tuesday, Starks' daughter pleaded guilty and was sentenced for driving without a license that had been revoked for DUI. That hearing occurred before Kanawha Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman.

Michelle Lee Starks, 22, of Cross Lanes was indicted by a grand jury on a felony charge of third offense driving on a revoked license. She entered into a plea agreement with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to a second offense, which is a misdemeanor.

Prosecutors then recommended a sentence of up to one year on home confinement with treatment for alcohol abuse. Kaufman sentenced her to six months of home confinement, alcohol treatment and 15 hours of community service.

"And for goodness sakes, don't drive," the judge admonished her. "Whatever you do."

Steve Starks, Deborah's husband, attended that hearing with his daughter.

Her attorney, Tim Smith, brought Deborah's sentencing in federal court to Kaufman's attention, saying it might complicate her home confinement situation if her mother also received a home confinement sentence. The two live together.

Typically, those serving on home confinement or probation are not allowed to be in contact with convicted felons.

Deborah asked the court to allow her report to incarceration voluntarily. Copenhaver gave her until 2 p.m. May 31 to turn herself in to the U.S. Marshal's Office.


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