Some of the biggest names in country music, including Dolly Parton and Kid Rock, are severing ties with Nashville publicity titan Webster PR following a deluge of sexual harassment and assault allegations made against the firm’s owner/CEO, Kirt Webster.
Webster’s clients began their mass exodus after a former aspiring country artist named Austin Rick (also known by his stage name, Austin Cody) stepped forward last Friday, accusing Webster of sexual harassment on Facebook. By Tuesday, he had created a GoFundMe page seeking to raise funds to take Webster to court over the allegation that he drugged and sexually assaulted him. Webster has denied those claims.
“As a single adult, Mr. Webster has had multiple relationships over the course of his professional life, all of which have been consensual. This includes a brief relationship with Mr. Rick,” a rep for Webster PR said in a statement to The Nashville Scene Tuesday. “It saddens Mr. Webster that nine years later, after Mr. Rick’s music career has been stagnant, Mr. Rick has taken the opportunistic approach of mischaracterizing that relationship and posting untrue allegations.”
Once one of the biggest PR agencies in country, Webster’s roster of artists—numbering 72 in September—was down to just 37 by Thursday morning before the list was removed from their website. Longtime client Parton’s name had vanished from the site, though she has not spoken publicly of her departure, and a request for comment was not immediately returned. A representative for Kid Rock, however, has confirmed to PEOPLE that he is no longer affiliated with Webster PR. Former client Billy Ray Cyrus announced on Thursday that he was signing with Adkins Publicity, founded by ex-Webster employee Scott Adkins.
According to Variety, others who have parted from the firm since the allegations became widespread earlier this week include Kenny Rogers, Hank Williams Jr., Kenny G, Big & Rich, Kiefer Sutherland—plus Parton, Cyrus and Kid Rock.
Prior to this, Justin Moore, Lee Greenwood, Taylor Hicks, Jewel, and Aaron Lewis had all departed in previous weeks, Variety reports. Country music Hall of Famer Randy Travis signed with 117 Publicity on Oct. 27, but the firm’s owner, Zach Farnum—a former Webster employee who left in May—tells Variety that the timing was coincidental. Two former employees of Webster told the Tennessean that their embattled former CEO did a mocking impersonation of Travis, who suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013 that nearly cost him his life. Farnum says that Travis is indeed aware of these accusations.
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Since then, more than a dozen former Webster employees have opened up in the press about the alleged hostile work environment and sexually/emotionally abusive behavior they witnessed from their CEO—including unwanted physical contact and pornography viewings. One former female employee told the Tennessean that Webster threatened to cut a part of her genitalia. This same woman and a male former colleague also told the publication that Webster would boast of soliciting sexual favors from men in exchange for meet-and-greet access to Parton. “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.
Webster did not return PEOPLE’s request for comment, but continues to deny the allegations. “Kirt Webster [is taking] some time away from the business to focus on combating the egregious and untrue allegations made against him,” a rep for Webster PR said in an additional statement Wednesday.
“We’ve all been through hell,” one of the firm’s former publicists told Variety. “He had one of the best PR teams in the business, and we all just wanted to do our jobs and pursue our dreams. We all witnessed harassment, and some of us were the brunt of it and some weren’t, but it affected all of us. Karma’s a bitch.”