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Gault sees political motive in festival critique

BY CORIANNE EGANcegan@paducahsun.com

The 60-page document raising questions about Barbecue on the River and released to city leaders last week by a trio of citizens was "politically motivated and a bullying tactic," Commissioner Carol Gault says.

Gault answered questions concerning the city's Barbecue on the River festival in a Wednesday meeting with the Paducah Sun's editorial board. The meeting came just over a week after Paducah residents John Williams Jr., Robert Truitt and Lewis Carr submitted a 60-page report alleging wrongdoing by the city, barbecue organizers and Gault, who serves on both the festival board and the Paducah City Commission.

Gault cited this year's city election as a reason the report attacked her standing as a city commissioner.

"If it's not politically motivated, I want to know what the end game is here," Gault said. "Is the motivation to destroy the festival? No one knows. That's my question. I think it was handled inappropriately."

Williams and Truitt are members of the Paducah Symphony Orchestra Board, which has feuded with festival organizers since February over control of the event's beer garden. Carr, a retired Paducah police investigator, helped put the report together. Some, including Gault, have asked if Carr was paid, and Williams said he was not.

The report gives seven pages of background on the festival, then lists a number of questions concerning the city's oversight of the festival and Gault's dual role. It alleges the city has been misinformed about the festival since it left the city's control in 2009, and that Gault had done several things that amounted to a conflict of interest. The report also alleged that festival organizers deliberately did not tell the public or the city of tax filing issues the past four years.

"There was no end game, besides that we thought the city should take responsibility for the taxpayers' dollars," Williams said. "We want the festival to thrive. We handed this to city leadership confidentially for them to investigate or do whatever they wanted. There is no political motivation."

Though the report talks about a perceived conflict of interest between Gault's public office and her work with Barbecue on the River, she said she would not be stepping down from either role, at least for the time being. Gault said stepping down would be an admission of wrongdoing, and she denies doing anything wrong deliberately.

"All of us (on the Paducah City Commission) sit on, or have sat on, boards for events or organizations that receive some types of city assistance," Gault said. "If we separated ourselves from everything we touch or give money to, we wouldn't be able to help any organization. There's plenty to learn from this. It's going to be a bumpy road for a little while."

The report was given to Mayor Gayle Kaler and City Manager Jeff Pederson in a meeting. Gault then handed copies of the report to the media along with her response to the allegations.

Barbecue on the River Inc. filed tax papers asking for a 501(c)3 status in 2011. After a 10-month wait, the board received notice that it had received 501(c)4 status, which would be retroactive to 2009. A year later, that status was revoked. Gault said that because of the long wait, and because of several miscommunications with bookkeepers, Barbecue on the River Inc. was not a nonprofit since 2012.

In the past several months, festival organizers say they have gotten a much better idea of where they stand with the IRS. The group filed 990 forms with the IRS in early March for 2009 through 2012 and hopes to receive 501(c)4 status once again in the coming months.

"We've done things in a very informal way, and in some instances we were too trusting of others," Gault said. "That really isn't an excuse. There were some things that were not handled correctly, and we are fixing that."

Because the city believed that the festival was registered as a 501(c)3, it did not charge permit and licensing fees for Barbecue on the River. Those fees have since been paid to the city by festival organizers. The city also never asked for an audit, which was stipulated in an ordinance giving the festival organizers $20,000.

Williams, Truitt and  Carr also questioned a payment of $49,995 on the 2009 tax forms. A city ordinance that effectively transferred ownership of the festival to Barbecue on the River Inc. in 2009 authorized a $30,000 payment from the city, and the group questioned the difference in funding. In the ordinance, Gault explained that the city also transferred cooking equipment, office supplies, tents, tables, a storage unit worth of materials for the festival and the festival's website. Those additional gifts had a value of $19,995, Gault said.

Gault abstained from a 2011 vote that gave Barbecue on the River Inc. $20,000 to start its retail store. She said the $20,000 was commonplace for new business incentives and added that she has no stake in the business. The building is leased, and about half of the rent comes from the festival's coffers and half the rent is paid by Bbq & More owners David Boggs and Susie Coiner. 

The report also asserted that Gault used her standing and knowledge as former director of the city's nonprofit Main Street organization to allow barbecue organizers to use Main Street's tax exempt ID number. The Main Street board learned about usage of the tax exempt number by one vendor, Wagner Convention and Decorating, and wrote a letter to the IRS.

Gault said that she and other members of the barbecue team have gone through receipts, which all show the festival paying tax on purchases from other vendors. She believes the number's use by Wagner was a mistake and went overlooked amid piles of receipts and bills.

Contact Corianne Egan, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8652 or follow @CoriEgan on Twitter.

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