Richie Knight is running for mayor as a young, energetic entrepreneur who can bring a fresh voice and business experience to City Hall. But his track record in business may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Knight, 28, founded HW Creative Marketing eight years ago with Nicole Batten, whom he met through the 4-H program. In recent years, he has become heavily involved in the community, serving on the boards of directors of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce and the Athens Downtown Development Authority and on an Athens-Clarke County economic mobility task force, and working with charities like United Way and Extra Special People, a camp for children with Down syndrome and other disabilities.
“I’m the one sitting up here amongst my opponents that signs paychecks every month, that’s kept the lights on, and knows what it takes to grow a workforce and be successful as a community,” Knight said at a recent candidate forum. But according to former employees, if he runs the city the way he runs his business, Athens is in trouble.
“This is a guy who’s running on the idea of, ‘I’m a business owner, and I’m really successful,’” said one former HW employee. “If that’s his basis for running, people need to know he’s irresponsible and mismanaging his business.”
At least five former HW employees—including Loran Posey, who also served as Knight’s campaign manager—who have filed claims in Clarke County Magistrate Court in recent months alleging that the company either wrote them bad checks or did not pay them for their work. The nonprofit tech incubator Four Athens also filed a claim against HW for back rent last year, although Executive Director Jordan Burke said that situation has since been resolved.
In a Facebook post shortly after the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement’s candidate forum Mar. 12, Posey wrote that Knight had failed to pay employees, bounced checks and paid some “substantially less than what they were owed.” A half-dozen other former HW employees have told Flagpole that there has been a mass exodus from the company, primarily due to payroll problems. They say checks sometimes came late, if they came at all, or bounced; they were promised raises that never materialized; and taxes were often withheld incorrectly. Sources also said they have not received their last paychecks after quitting months ago, or were only partially paid months after leaving. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division is investigating HW, DOL spokesman Michael D’Aquino confirmed, but he said he could not release any further information.
“The business is writing these checks knowing there’s no money in the account,” another former employee said. “It’s the facade of a well-run business, and I don’t want to be a part of that, because it’s not.”
Knight said the claims have all been resolved or are in the process of being resolved. “Anything that hasn’t been resolved is being handled by an attorney,” he said, so he could not comment further.
The company’s office in the old Wild Wing space upstairs from the Blind Pig was nearly empty during a recent late-morning interview. HW is shifting away from full-time employees and is hiring more part-time employees and contractors who work from home, Knight said. “It’s the pains of running a small business in this town,” he said. “Getting the right talent has been our biggest struggle.”
In the widely shared Facebook post, Posey also alleged that Knight said that AADM co-founder Mokah Jasmine Johnson is not qualified to head the group because she’s “not even African American.” (Johnson, who is originally from Jamaica, declined to comment, and Knight denied making that remark.)
In addition, several former employees told Flagpole that Knight is more conservative than he is making himself out to be, and that he told them he voted for Donald Trump for president, which Knight also denied. He has consistently declined to reveal his national political leanings, though.
“I’m a gay, Hispanic business owner,” he said in a December interview. “I’ve never wanted to be put in a box my whole life. Why would I start now?”
He has staked out liberal positions on a variety of issues—favoring decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana and the creation of a civil rights committee to investigate discrimination complaints, and opposing Sheriff Ira Edwards’ policy of cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain and deport undocumented immigrants being held at the county jail. He also wants to press the University of Georgia to contribute to an affordable housing trust fund as a way to make up for its tax-exempt status and low pay for many staff members.
On economic development, though, he sounds more conservative, saying that ACC is unfriendly to business, and that business owners have to jump through too many hoops and are restricted by too many regulations.
Raised in Newton County by a Cuban immigrant mother and a father who owns a property-appraisal business, Knight said he learned about hard work at an early age. He said Athens is facing “a workforce development crisis.” He has heard from employers like Carrier, a refrigeration and air-conditioning company with a plant in Athens, that they can’t find reliable people to fill jobs, and so Athens needs programs that teach soft skills. At the same time, the local government doesn’t do enough to build up young professionals, either. He has proposed transferring economic development from ACC to the chamber of commerce, as many cities do. “We have no economic development strategy at all,” he said.
Above all, Knight said he would be a mayor with no allegiances, who can break through stalemates and get things done. “We continue to claim to be this progressive city, but what are we doing to be progressive?”
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