Prominent Nashville publicist Kirt Webster, whose clients have included Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and Kid Rock, abruptly stepped away from his firm Wednesday amid swirling accusations of sexual assault and harassment.
Days after former Webster client and onetime aspiring country singer Austin C. Rick accused the Music City executive of drugging and assaulting him, 10 former employees of Webster PR described to the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee a culture of consistent workplace abuse and harassment.
The ex-employees requested anonymity for fear of personal and professional repercussions.
Metro Nashville police are looking into the allegations pertaining to Rick, said spokeswoman Kris Mumford.
"Our sex crimes detectives are reaching out to the alleged victim to see if he’d like to talk about what happened," Mumford said Wednesday afternoon.
Webster's alleged behavior includes trading explicit photographs for passes to meet-and-greet sessions with Parton, unwanted touching and unleashing vulgar nicknames during company meetings.
“There was so much verbal and emotional abuse,” one female former employee said. “I witnessed some of the worst behavior you can imagine."
In a statement, Webster, who has spent more than two decades representing some of Nashville's biggest stars, described his contact with Rick as consensual.
Webster is stepping away from his company to fight the "egregious and untrue allegations" from Rick, according to a different statement. A spokeswoman did not immediately respond to questions about allegations of workplace sexual harassment.
Webster's behavior was described as unsolicited and persistent by the former employees. The former employees said Webster created a culture of fear and intimidation among his young staff that deterred workers from speaking out until now.
Former employees detail alleged abuse
One week ago, Webster was ushering Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton down the red carpet before Rogers' tribute concert at Bridgestone Arena.
After more than 20 years in Nashville, Webster became one of the most powerful publicists in town, with a roster of high-profile artists that includes multiple Country Music Hall of Fame members. Earlier this year, he accompanied several of his clients to Washington, D.C., as they performed at Donald Trump's pre-inauguration concert.
Away from the spotlight, Webster created a hostile work environment, the former employees say.
One former employee who spent years working at Webster PR said Webster threatened to cut a part of her genitalia.
The female ex-employee and a male former employee said Webster bragged about soliciting photographs of men's genitals and sexual favors from Parton fans in exchange for meet-and greet passes.
“So many of Dolly’s fans are gay men who were willing to do anything to meet her and he would take advantage of that. He showed (the photographs) around the office, bragging,” the female former worker said.
Two ex-employees said Webster also mocked his former client, singer Randy Travis, who had a near fatal stroke in 2013 that left him barely able to walk and with halted speech. The ex-employees say Webster did impressions of Travis.
Over the years of her employment, the female ex-employee said there was constant turnover among the staff.
“He’s screaming at you one second and then acting like nothing’s wrong the next.” She said that on at least two occasions in the office, Webster screamed so hard he vomited.
Multiple employees reported seeing Webster clinch his fist and draw it back as if to hit a female employee. Webster's alleged act stemmed from the employee using company funds to buy candy for the office candy dish.
Three male employees, all of whom worked for Webster for at least a year, told The Tennessean stories of explicit hand gestures and unwanted physical contact. At least two former employees reported Webster pantomimed having sex with them in front of other people, in one case allegedly pulling a female employee's hair.
Another male former employee said Webster twisted his nipples at work and gave him unwanted massages.
On another occasion, one of the ex-employees said, Webster called colleagues into his office to watch pornography that featured the wife of one of his clients, who had formerly appeared in adult films.
Two of the former employees said they remember Webster held a fiddle case near his genitalia, simulating masturbating with the case in front of employees.
At least four of the ex-employees reported that Webster sometimes invited his male employees to his house after hours. When they said no, he got angry and refused to speak to them for days, the ex-employees said.
Webster reportedly controlled his employees by frequently threatening to fire them.
“We preferred he be in a bad mood because he left us alone,” one of the men reported. “When he was in a good mood is when we got harassed.”
All of the ex-employees said the harassment occurred regularly and that the company's culture of intimidation kept them from speaking out about it. "His phrase was 'loose lips sink ships,' " reported one of the men.
Three of the male former workers also reported that Webster referred to his female employees with vulgar nicknames.
Webster PR didn’t have a human resources department, the ex-employee said. Instead, Webster at one point told people to report complaints to his assistant. When they followed the new protocol, they said they were scolded.
Austin C. Rick accusations
Away from the office, at least one artist accuses Webster of misconduct.
In 2008, Rick performed country music under the stage name Austin Cody.
"(Webster) was my publicist. He was my radio promotion. He was my manager. He was going to be all hats for me," Rick told The Tennessean. "Then he started just verbal flirting and things like that, and how we're such a great team together and if we stick together, then nothing's impossible."
Shortly thereafter, Rick said, Webster told him, "I want there to be fireworks in your career, but first there has to be fireworks between you and I."
According to Rick, Webster's behavior then became more aggressive and "completely terrifying." He alleges Webster watched hardcore pornography in front of him and invited him to sit on his lap and watch it.
"He told me all the time that if I decided that I wasn't going to go along with the show, he would and could make sure that no one ever heard my name in the (music) business again," Rick said. "Well, that scared the s--t out of me."
Rick alleges that Webster assaulted him at an Easter party in 2008.
"I drank a drink. I drank a second drink, and before that second drink was gone, I remember nothing else. The next thing I remember was waking up, coming to, under his sheets, in his bed. I had my own guest bedroom right down the hallway with my stuff and everything. But I wake up in his bed. It's just us. All of the partiers had gone. He is like bear-hugging slash cuddling me and he's kissing my ears, my nose, my mouth, my neck, everything.
"I played it off, because that's what you did to survive in his house," Rick added. "You played things off. At that point, I was done. I had to be done playing it off."
Rick confided in a friend who was a law enforcement officer in Blount County, then begged him not to take action: "I was terrified I would lose my career."
"I called a taxi. I waited until (Webster) was cooking, and when the taxi got there, I explicitly told them on the phone, 'Turn your headlights off. It's a gated driveway. Don't try to drive around it. Just wait out there.' I had my suitcase packed and I bolted, and I got out of there. I got as far away as I could, and it wasn't until I was back in town that I guess he had gotten around to texting me or whatever."
After this, Rick said, he learned that Webster's threats weren't empty ones: "He wasn't kidding. I lost everything. I lost my booking agency two days later. I lost my endorsements. I lost all of my radio promotion. I had nothing. And since that day, I have never performed again."
Rick now lives in North Carolina. He recently launched a GoFundMe crowd-funding campaign called "Expose Kirt Webster." He writes that the donations will be used to support his "legal battle to come," adding, "I have no plans of backing off until Kirt Webster and his accomplices are brought to face their crimes."
Harassment allegations surfacing nationwide
The allegations come at a time when sexual harassment is at the forefront of the national conscience.
Bombshell accusations of rape, assault and harassment by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein prompted his own company to orchestrate his ouster and drove calls for law enforcement to investigate.
Hundreds of women have accused director James Toback of inappropriate sexual conduct. Netflix indefinitely suspended production of its popular series House of Cards amid reports lead actor Kevin Spacey engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with another actor who was a minor at the time of the alleged encounter.
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times reported six women accused prominent Hollywood director Brett Ratner of sexual misconduct, including non-consensual sexual encounters. All of those accused have either denied or downplayed the accusations.
The former Webster employees noted some of these prominent national cases as a reason they chose to come forward now.
A spokeswoman said a statement from Webster PR early Wednesday announcing the closure of the firm was inaccurate. Instead, the company is rebranding as Westby PR, named after Jeremy Westby, who mostly recently served as the senior vice president of Webster PR.