By Nathan Harris, Ashley Soriano, and Ashlyn Webb
Amid questions about living wages at the Athens candidate forum on March 26, one audience member stood up and directed a tough question to Athens mayoral candidate Richie Knight.
“Richie, you run a business campaign. You’re a businessman. You mentioned living wages,” Emily Dardaman said. “How many employees are currently suing you to get wages that they should’ve had? Where is the money?”
Dardaman is the wife of Eric Daniel, a former employee of HW Creative Marketing, Knight’s business. At the forum, Dardaman mentioned concerns that HW Creative Marketing sometimes failed to pay employees.
Knight said he is “taking care of anyone that had missing wages,” and added that claims which were not taken care of have been turned over to an attorney.
Knight said all but Daniel’s case and one other case have been settled.
“All of the past situations have been settled except for two, and those were just deemed to be more appropriate for an attorney to handle,” Knight said in an interview with The Red & Black. “I don’t have any ill will or thoughts toward anyone.”
At least five former employees, including Daniel, have filed claims since December 2017 regarding bad or missing paychecks against Knight, his business partner Nicole Batten and HW Creative Marketing, according to documents The Red & Black obtained from the Clarke County Magistrate Court.
Former employees speak out
The questions surrounding Knight’s business came to light on March 14 when Loran Posey, a former HW employee and Knight’s former mayoral campaign manager, published a Facebook post which said that Knight had failed to pay employees, among other claims.
Knight has sued for libel and demanded a retraction from Posey, according to the case filing in the Athens-Clarke County Superior Court.
The Facebook post in question mentioned what have been described in court documents as “fraudulent checks.” Posey also claimed that Knight questioned Mokah Jasmine Johnson’s ability to lead the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement. Posey’s post further claimed that Knight “lost every single one of his full-time employees” because he did not pay them, according to documents filed in Knight’s libel case. The libel case documents include a screenshot of the Facebook post.
In the court documents, Knight did not contest the claims about employee paychecks. But he does contest other aspects of the Facebook post, including the reported statement about Johnson and the statement that his entire staff quit.
In a March 28 interview with The Red & Black, Knight said all of Posey’s post was untrue.
A judge issued a temporary restraining order and interlocutory injunction on March 22 at Knight’s request, according to the court order. As a result, Posey was ordered by the court to remove his entire Facebook post and cease from publishing “defamatory content in reference to Richie Knight,” according to ACC Superior Court records.
Clarke County Magistrate Court records show that in January, Posey filed a claim alleging that he never received his final $2,153.84 paycheck. Posey dismissed the case in March after he accepted partial payment of the money he was owed, according to the court records.
Posey did not comment for this article.
In March, Daniel filed a claim against HW Creative Marketing alleging that he did not receive $958.21 for his final paycheck before leaving the company in January, according to court records.
Daniel said Knight offered to pay him minimum wage for his final days with the company, but Daniel did not accept Knight’s offer because he wanted $958.21 in full.
At the forum, Knight said issues with a group of HW clients paying late last year caused the lapse in pay.
But Dardaman and her husband are not satisfied.
“I don’t think that we were at all prepared – emotionally, financially, in any way – for what ended up happening,” she said in an interview with The Red & Black. “It was a complete bait and switch.”
Every time he received a paycheck, “it was a race to the bank,” Daniel said, as he and his coworkers would compete to deposit their checks first, in fear that there would not be sufficient funds for all the employees.
Kelsey Reidle, a former HW employee, said voters need to be made aware of Knight’s business practices.
“I think if you’re running for the office of mayor in a city that so desperately needs better paying jobs for young people, I think you better be sure you’re paying your employees,” Reidle said.
Addressing concerns about his ability to be mayor, Knight said in an interview with The Red & Black, “I don’t have any ability [as mayor] to sign a check, to misappropriate funds … the mayor has very minimal control when it comes to that.”
Court documents provide details of other claims
Out of at least five HW employees who have or had cases against Richie Knight, three employees told The Red & Black they have chosen not to speak out publicly against Knight, although their names are in the court records.
Two employees told The Red & Black they chose not to speak publicly about their experiences with Knight over fear of legal consequences. The other former employee did not want to speak about their claim because they considered the matter settled.
According to one claim filed in December 2017, a former HW staffer resigned in mid-October after they were twice unable to deposit their September paycheck due to the company having “non-sufficient funds.”
The former employee was eventually issued a valid check for their September pay, but they said in their claim that they never received their paycheck for $2,261.54 for the first half of October.
“You know this isn’t the way we do business, nor is it the way that we treat people,” said Knight in an email on Oct. 18, apologizing for the September check, according to screenshots included with the claim. “We are both incredibly sorry that this has happened and really mortified at the whole situation.”
The employee replied with concerns over their student loan bill and an overdrafted account, saying they “cannot wait six weeks at a time to get paid” and “cannot perform my responsibilities until I receive payment.”
Knight replied saying he would mail the employee’s October paycheck on payday and thanked the employee for their work.
But the check never arrived, according to court documents.
On Nov. 2, the former employee texted Knight asking if he had mailed the check, which he said he had. Having still not received the check, the employee texted Knight again on Nov. 6 and Nov. 7, with no response. Two calls to Knight from the former employee’s lawyer also went unanswered, according to court records.
Knight responded after the former employee said they “can easily go to the paper.” He told the former employee the check had been issued through the bank and that he had canceled and reissued it, according to the court documents.
When the former employee had still not received payment, their lawyer sent a demand letter to Knight on Nov. 16 threatening legal action, giving him 10 days to respond. When Knight did not respond, the former employee emailed Knight that they were filing suit.
“That sounds fine, we had a check here for you but will go ahead and cancel it now,” Knight replied in an email documented in the court records.
Because Knight had not replied to the served claim within the time asked, the court is proceeding with a default hearing in April.
Other claims against the company, while less detailed in terms of a timeline of events, show other instances of paycheck problems and default hearings due to Knight’s unresponsiveness.
In December, another former employee accused HW Creative Marketing of issuing a “fraudulent” $2,175 payroll check, according to Magistrate Court records. The employee did not specify when the check was issued. The former employee dismissed the case in February after the company paid the full amount they owed.
Another former employee, who left the company in January, filed a complaint in March alleging they never received payment of $1,538.46 for time worked. The former employee dismissed their case last week after they reportedly received the money they were owed.
Despite these events, Knight said his company is doing fine, although it is “down a few positions.”
These employees’ claims have taken a toll on his business and those close to him though, Knight said in an interview with The Red & Black.
“Not only is this a sensitive topic, this is my life. This is blood, sweat and tears of eight years,” Knight said.
Knight said he and his business partner Batten have never taken a paycheck home since starting the company.
“I’ve never taken home a paycheck [from HW] in the eight years that I’ve been doing this,” he said. “Nicole and I work very hard to make sure all the money we make stays in here.”
As for Dardaman and Daniel, they said they fear repercussions for speaking publicly against Knight, including being sued or damaging their careers.
“We finally got to the point where we saw others getting hurt and financially where we couldn’t sustain it anymore,” Dardaman said. “Especially seeing how [Knight] is championing a small business community in Athens while simultaneously undermining it through his actions.”
Knight said he wants to move on from past events.
“I don’t think it’s worth redigging out,” Knight said in an interview with The Red & Black. “It does nothing but discredit the valuable work that I’ve done and the selfless acts that I continually do every day.”
Batten, senior partner of HW Marketing Company, declined to comment.