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Free To Be Festival a bust, leaving performers, vendors asking Empowering Spirits Foundation for payment

SAN DIEGO -- Empowering Spirits Foundation (ESF), a local LGBT non-profit, staged its Free To Be Festival on Sept. 4 in Los Angeles to a crowd of less than 100. Attendance had been forecast from 7,500 to 20,000 and many people involved, including vendors, production staff and performers, are looking to ESF for answers — and payment.

Promoted as a large music and arts festival, ESF had at one point scheduled Dashboard Confessional, Semi Precious Weapons and Vanessa Carlton, among others, to perform. Sophie B. Hawkins was also promoted, and stayed committed to the festival when the other artists cancelled.

The Free to Be Festival had a rocky start. Originally scheduled for July with Lady Gaga in early discussions to headline, the event was eventually cancelled by ESF’s board of directors. As founder and CEO A. Latham Staples said, the production company did not have ESF’s "best interest at heart. With all that was going on,” Staples said, “we just didn’t have a good feeling and we needed to move forward without them.”

ESF did move forward, rescheduling the event for Sept. 3 at Los Angeles Historic State Park. However, due to another issue, ESF again switched the date to Sept. 4 to accommodate the FYF Fest, a larger music festival that wanted the location on Sept. 3, as it had done so for the previous five years. Goldenvoice, a subsidiary of AEG Live, produced the FYF Fest.

Dispute arises over production costs

This is where some of the controversy for the Sept. 4 event lies, because Staples insists that Goldenvoice agreed to pick up the production costs of the event in exchange for using the park on Sept. 3.

"The whole premise behind [the arrangement] was that we could utilize their production," Staples said. "They’d set up the staging, lighting, toilets, fencing, security [and] all that type of stuff, and then as their event came to a close, we could piggy-back off of their stuff. They would get the tax write-off because they would assist a nonprofit and we wouldn’t have to pay for the costs of the production," he explained.

"Our costs were for marketing and advertising, and then our costs were the artists,” Staples said. In a follow-up conversation with Gay San Diego, Staples reiterated that his estimated production costs would be $30,000 to $35,000.

Kent Black, an independent production manager who operates Paso Productions, disagrees.

Black told San Diego Gay & Lesbian News that he entered into an agreement with Staples and ESF to oversee all the “on the ground” production, including security, lighting, power, staging, concessions, fencing, sound and permits, among others. Black said he saved ESF more than $250,000 by negotiating with Goldenvoice to use their equipment, but made it clear that ESF would be responsible for all the costs that went into producing ESF’s own festival on Sept. 4.

"I told Latham up front," Black said, "after we negotiated the stage setup with AEG [and Goldenvoice] that he was still looking at $100,000 to $125,000 in production costs." Black added that this conversation first took place in person on Aug. 12 when Black gave Staples an estimated budget that was subsequently updated several times leading up to the event date.

Stop payment on 21 checks; treasurer professes amnesia

The budget shows estimated costs for the production at almost $107,000. Black says Staples not only knew of the costs and ESF’s obligation to pay, but also had ESF write checks on Sept. 1 and Sept. 4 to cover them. Several days after writing the checks, which were post-dated for Sept. 4, Staples said he informed his bank to stop payment on 21 different checks.

"We contacted every single party … [and] gave them a heads up that stop payments were being put on stuff until we figured out exactly what was going on,” Staples said.

Staples, who is not authorized by the ESF board to write any check over $500, said all checks needed to be signed by Lidia Gomez, ESF board treasurer.

When questioned by Gay San Diego about checks written for the festival, Gomez said, "I don’t really remember, to be honest to you." While Gomez did say she had documentation of the accounts, she said, "I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I know, because I don’t."

Initially, ESF was promoting the event to performers and vendors as an event that would bring 20,000 attendees. As more acts dropped and they moved closer to the date, ESF lowered its estimation to 7,500. People working the production aspect of the event, including Black, were anticipating this many attendees and were told by ESF to expect more.

"The last number he [Staples] gave me was 7,200," Black said, "and he was hoping for 10,000." Several other people involved with the event, including L.A. Historic Park Ranger James Valdez, catering vendor George Krokondelas and security manager Edward Hulbert, confirmed this estimation, which they said came from Staples.

Valdez was working on Sept. 4 and said 75 people showed up. When asked why so few attendees, Staples said, "I can’t say factually what happened. I don’t know."

Currently, Krokondelas said the damages for his company are around $10,000; however he was going through appropriate channels to recoup his loss before moving forward with any formal charges against ESF.

Sophie B. Hawkins files charges against ESF

Sophie B. Hawkins and her manager, Gigi Gaston, have already filed charges against ESF for money due. "This is the first time in 17 years with Sophie on the road for something like this to happen," Gaston explained to San Diego Gay & Lesbian News. Staples promised a $5,000 deposit in July when the contract with Hawkins was first signed, but the money never came. Gaston finally received a $500 payment.

Several weeks later, Gaston received two emails from Staples confirming a larger payment was made by wire, but again, the money never appeared. In a follow-up conversation, Staples confirmed he had cancelled the wire because he was going to pay Sophie out of the box office receipts the day of the show, according to Gaston.

"We were on our way to the venue when he called to cancel Sophie," Gaston said. She and Hawkins decided to go to the venue anyway to recoup Hawkins’s fee. "When I got there," Gaston said, "[Staples] told me the previous manager had already wiped out his box office money,” but with fewer than 100 people at the event, that amount was around $300, according to Gaston.

While at the park on Sept. 4, Gaston was able to get Staples to sign a new contract, confirming Hawkins had shown up to play and that Staples still owed her $7,500. Gaston is now seeking $7,500, and possibly additional fees Hawkins paid her band members for the second date change. Staples had promised to pay those fees as well, Gaston said.

GSD editor’s note: Margie M. Palmer is a current contributing reporter to Gay San Diego and has previous connections to the Empowering Spirits Foundation and the Free To Be Festival. Due to a potential conflict of interest, Palmer was not consulted for nor did she contribute to this story.

SDGLN publisher’s note: Although San Diego Gay & Lesbian News had originally signed on as a media sponsor of the original July version of the Free To Be Festival, when the event was rescheduled for September, SDGLN declined to continue sponsorship.