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Businesswoman disputes involvement in troubled hemp venture, says employees should be paid

Posted at 5:10 PM, May 31, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-31 20:20:32-04

CLEVELAND — A Florida businesswoman and natural medicine practitioner is distancing herself from a troubled, Cleveland-based hemp manufacturing company that has been sued in federal court for allegedly failing to pay at least 180 employees.

Dr. Jenny Wilkins, the owner of several pharmacies that specialize in natural medicine and holistic treatment, told News 5 Friday that she was solely an advisor to North Coast Natural Solutions and CEO Ty Williams and not a business partner as the federal lawsuit has alleged.

Sean Sobel and Claire Wade-Kilts , the attorneys representing five former North Coast employees who have sued their former employer, filed an amended complaint in the federal lawsuit Monday evening. The complaint added Wilkins, her husband and their two companies to the litigation. The lawsuit, which seeks class action status, stems from the claims from several employees that allege Williams and North Coast Natural Solutions have failed to pay them for several weeks of paid training earlier this year.

Wilkins said she had a very limited role in North Coast and has not signed any formal agreements or legal paperwork associated with the company. Wilkins said she was introduced to Williams in the summer of 2018 through her longtime attorney, Jason Searns. Searns had met Williams through a mutual acquaintance, Wilkins said.

During the fast-paced conversations in the beginning, Wilkins said Williams provided to her a pro forma or a detailed business plan for his upcoming hemp manufacturing venture. Wilkins said it appeared like a legitimate business with confirmed investors.

With the desire to expand her pharmacy and other business interests into the Ohio market, Wilkins saw it as a perfect opportunity, she said.

“I was super excited about it because it sounded like something that was going to provide a massive opportunity and jobs for an impoverished part of the state,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins said she does not have equity stake in the company but was instead brought on to serve as an advisor to the company, North Coast Natural Solutions. Despite repeatedly asking Williams for a contract, Wilkins said he never provided one to her.

“I was never brought in as a partner,” Wilkins said. “I was never even paid. I had no equity whatsoever but [Williams] wanted to bring me in as the chief scientific officer and to come in and formulate and advise on building the medical facility. I’d be working on the growing side, the research side and product development. He doesn’t have a medical background so he needed somebody. How are you going to open up a manufacturing facility if you don’t know how to formulate?”

In September 2018, Wilkins flew to the Cleveland area to take part in the ribbon cutting of the facility. Once Wilkins saw the dilapidated yet expansive industrial building, she immediately began to question the projected timeline Williams had provided her.

Wilkins said Williams planned on opening the business by February 2019, which would be roughly 6 months after the ribbon cutting. To date, no permits, architectural drawings, environmental assessments or zoning variances have been filed in conjunction with the property.

After the ribbon cutting, Wilkins said it became increasingly more difficult to get ahold of Williams. The two seldom spoke through the winter. Wilkins also claims that Williams hired the 183 employees without her knowledge.

“That’s why I’m in shock right now. How are there people working when there is nothing there? The building didn’t look workable. You couldn’t even work in it,” Wilkins said.

Then came the stories of employees not getting paid. Williams provided text messages to News 5 showing her peppering Williams with questions about the facility and the allegations that employees had not been paid. Williams’ answers were devoid of any detail.

“We will be alright. Yes, we will be okay,” Williams wrote via text message.

In regards to the lawsuit that Wilkins now finds herself a part of, she said she vigorously denies ever having any significant role in North Coast Natural Solutions. Wilkins also said she was not involved in the hiring of a single employee.

“I’m feeling like he just wanted to use my name,” Wilkins said. “I’m beyond crushed right now. This can destroy my reputation. I just want them to know I have nothing to do with this. If anything, I’m like the workers, you know? A lot of people – not just the workers – have been let down by this. This is something that was supposed to bring a lot of hope to a lot of people who were suffering.”

Collectively, it is estimated that Williams owes his employees more than $500,000. The lawsuit alleges the defendants violated state and federal labor laws, minimum wage laws and breach of contract.

“Our clients walked away from jobs to take this job and now have gone a month, a month-and-a-half without any paycheck,” said Claire Wade-Kilts, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys said. “People are losing their cars, their houses, one client had to surrender her pets. This is impacting everyone.”

Sobel and Wade-Kilts said the decision to add Dr. Wilkins, her husband and their companies to the lawsuit came after a September 2018 Facebook post made clear her apparent involvement in Williams’ hemp venture.

“Thank you Ohio for approving my industrial Cannabis project and Dr. Jenny wellness center in Cleveland’s Glenville (neighborhood),” the September 18, 2018 post reads. “What a great turn out at our ribbon cutting this past week. Stay tuned for more details! Our 400,000 sq ft. manufacturing and processing facility will be making history and setting the standards in the cannabis space.”

“She was one of the public faces of this venture, of this effort to build this hemp facility in Glenville,” said attorney Sean Sobel. “We believe she shares just as much, if not more culpability as Mr. Williams as she was broadcasting this was her branded venture. She broadcasted to her Facebook followers and the general public that the Glenville facility is going to be a Dr. Jenny wellness center. That gives us a pretty big clue that she was heavily involved in this venture.”

Williams has not responded to repeated requests for comment. In text messages obtained by News 5, Williams insists he is working as hard as he can to “pay the people that deserve to be paid.”