For many people, the $726 judgment a small claims court awarded Jeannine Mitchell wouldn't be life-changing. But Mitchell is a 72-year-old trying to support her and her husband on Social Security. So when Tacoma Weekly didn’t pay the $726, Mitchell had to go looking for other work.
“We are Social Security seniors that work. That really, really hurt us, when I lost that money,” Mitchell told me. “So I started driving for Uber Eats, which I love, but it’s not the same amount of money. I have to work hard for it.”
Mitchell is one of over a dozen people that contacted me after The Stranger published our first story earlier this month about wage theft allegations made against the Tacoma Weekly. Their allegations of unpaid wages, physical threats, verbal abuse, bounced checks, and intimidation from John Weymer, the Weekly’s publisher, stretch back over 20 years. Many of the allegations are corroborated by either small claims court judgments or wage theft judgments from the Washington Department of Labor & Industries. All ten people in this story gave me their full legal name.
I sat down with Weymer and his paper’s editor, Matt Nagle, last week to hear his response to the allegations against him. Weymer was equal parts amicable and distraught. He either denied or had excuses for every story of unpaid wages or physical threats. When he wanted to emphasize something, he would get so close to me that his knees would touch my legs or his hands would graze my arm. At one point he put his head down on the boardroom table in the middle of the Weekly’s office and sobbed, blaming himself, his ex-wife, and a group of “problem employees” for breaking him down.
“It’s very difficult to run a company, especially when you have problem employees,” Weymer told me in our recorded interview. “And most people just pay L&I claims and they should. I have paid some of them but employers do get taken advantage of. The employees aren’t always right. And everyone in this room will tell you that I am a pretty good boss and I take care of my responsibilities but you do have problem employees and sometimes that’s a cancer. But I am totally responsible for it. Nobody has ever lost a dime on me and I’ve never gone bankrupt and I pay my bills.”
Weymer’s mistakes have been well documented by the state of Washington and Tacoma’s local court system. Weymer has been forced to pay over $170,000 in various lawsuits against him in Pierce County Court that stretch back to 1995. And in the last two years, Weymer has paid $9,157.06 in wage theft claims that were filed against him at the Washington Department of Labor and Industries. Weymer is still appealing two other claims that raise the total amount of wage theft claims to $12,991.88. Tacoma Weekly and its parent company, Pierce County Community Newspapers, have been accused in L&I claims of stealing another $5,006.92 in unpaid wages in 2018, although those two claims are still pending review by the department.
Seven additional complaints were filed against the company between 1998 and 2005 according to L&I records, but due to a change in how the department reports and classifies wage theft claims the state was unable to provide me with detailed information about those claims.
When I asked Weymer about his lengthy track record of the state ruling against him on wage theft claims, he chalked it up to the difficulties of running a small business and trying to keep a print media publication alive.
“You know what dude. I’m not rich. I’ve fucking struggled all my life to make this work and I don’t hurt people. I help people. I have all my life,” Weymer said as he cried.
His former employees tell a different story. Rachelle Abellar was the first to come forward to The Stranger. We published her allegations of Weymer deducting healthcare premiums from her paycheck for four months only to find out that he had canceled the insurance after the first month. After she tried to use her health insurance, Abellar claims she was hit with hundreds of dollars in medical bills. She said she decided to quit when Weymer stopped paying her salary this September. Weymer has denied Abellar’s allegations and said he could produce documentation to prove that he paid her, but Weymer has yet to share a single document with The Stranger after more than three weeks of repeated requests.
“All of these allegations are false, and we have ample proof. We have turned this ex-employee matter over to our attorney for legal action,” said Matt Nagle, the Weekly’s current editor in an e-mail.
Instead of providing documents, the Tacoma Weekly lashed out against his ex-employees and The Stranger in a lengthy editorial published to his website Wednesday.
Since publishing Abellar’s story, I’ve spoken with over a dozen people that have dealt with Weymer. These are their allegations of wage theft, unpaid bills, and intimidation in Tacoma.
Miguel Douglas didn’t work for Weymer for long, but after just five months of managing the Weekly’s Information Technology needs he said he had seen Weymer in multiple exchanges that ended with the publisher yelling and threatening his employees. So when Douglas decided to quit in August of 2017 after Weymer bounced three of his paychecks, he decided it wouldn’t be safe to do it in person.
“John has a very serious temper. I saw it firsthand and I didn’t want to get involved in that because it could have turned violent on his part, because he really gets confrontational,” Douglas said. “The safest way for me was to send him a cordial letter that said, ‘I received three bounced checks from you and we are just going to go a different way.’”
Douglas said his cordial approach didn’t convince Weymer to pay the former IT employee his back wages, so Douglas filed a wage theft claim against Weymer with the state. Weymer contested the claim, arguing that Douglas had failed to show up for work and stole passwords, allegations Douglas said were untrue. Weymer repeated those allegations to me.
“Miguel never showed up... Supposedly he was working from his home. And nothing got done. And then he crashed our server and we lost so many things. And we were building our website and he destroyed it,” Weymer said.
Douglas denied Weymer’s allegations and the publisher eventually dropped his appeal and paid Douglas $7,200 in back wages, according to a document from the state’s Department of Labor and Industries.
Douglas said it didn’t surprise him to see Weymer make false allegations against employees asking for the money they were owed.
“If they would ask for money he would find a way to make it appear as though they didn’t do any work so they didn’t deserve the check,” Douglas said. “Even people that I actually saw physically… he would deny later that they even worked for him.”
Before Douglas took over the IT operations for the company, Jordan Martin was briefly helping run the digital needs of the Weekly. Martin said he was hired in May of 2016, a few weeks before his daughter was born.
“I was hired on and [Weymer] said basically he would put my daughter through college. It was one month before she was born that I was hired on,” Martin said. Three months later, Martin said he was sitting in his publisher’s office facing an enraged Weymer. He remembered Weymer yelling a spate of allegations against him: “You oversold yourself. You’re lousy. You’re no good. You’re nothing. I don’t know why I hired you. You’re fired, get out.”
Martin said Weymer became furious after Martin asked why the publisher had canceled payments on his work computer. Martin said Weymer later physically threatened him and had to be restrained by the Weekly’s operations manager at the time, Tim Meikle.
Weymer did not respond to a request for comment regarding Martin’s allegations.
Tim Meikle told me that he quit the company in November of 2016 shortly after Martin was fired. Meikle said he worked for Weymer for ten years and frequently saw the publisher become enraged towards employees. “I used to call it John’s man fits. He would definitely throw a temper tantrum with things and get defensive. John has no problem being loud and boisterous and sometimes intimidating.” Meikle told me that he never got his last two weeks of pay, worth about $1,600. He was working with a lawyer to get the money but he stopped trying for the sake of his own mental health.
“I dropped it. To be honest with you, the whole situation caused depression,” Meikle said. “It was too much of an uphill battle and I was trying to find new employment and I had to juggle what was more important. I have four children in the home, my wife, my family, and I couldn’t be unemployed for too long. So should I chase after this new money or go find new employment?”
On the same November 2016 day Meikle quit, his colleague Cedric Leggin says he also left the newspaper. Leggin said earlier in the month Weymer was irate during a meeting and physically confronted Leggin, who was working as a web developer and general operations manager. Leggin didn’t want to describe specific details of the physical altercation but he said the publisher did put his hands on him.
“Stuff happened physically that shouldn’t have and he knows that,” Leggin said. “This all happened on a Thursday, that physical altercation, and then that Friday he called us in the office to apologize and he said I can’t promise this won’t happen again. And those were the words that made me leave.”
Leggin said Weymer canceled payment on his last paycheck and claimed that Weymer told his friends at the Fife Police Department to pull Leggin over if he drove through. Leggin never tried to get his last paycheck. “It irritates me but I only have so much time in the day and I’d rather spend it on positive things.”
Weymer did not respond to a request for comment about the allegations from Leggin and Meikle.
Miguel Douglas, the IT manager that lasted for five months in 2017, said he eventually got his money from Weymer, but even with L&I involved he still had to hound Weymer for money.
“I received everything back. That wasn’t easy though. He kept procrastinating in paying me off. There was irrefutable evidence of that,” Douglas said.
The Grand Cinema is Tacoma’s only arthouse movie theater dedicated to showing independent and foreign films. The theater, on the edge of Tacoma’s downtown, has put on the Tacoma Film Festival since 2006, and starting in 2013 the Tacoma Weekly printed and helped distribute the film festival guide. The Grand Cinema would pay for the printing, while the newspaper would arrange the guide for the press and help distribute the guide around Washington’s third-largest city. But in 2017 the partnership ran into trouble.
Philip Cowan, the theater’s executive director, said the Grand Cinema had finalized their 2017 contract with Tacoma Weekly in June, paid a 50 percent deposit in August, and then made the final payment on Sep. 6 with the expectation that the guides would be delivered on Sep. 14. But then on Sep. 18 Weymer demanded additional money, according to Cowan. “We said no,” Cowan said. “We have documentation that showed that, for this page length, this amount was agreed upon.”
Cowan shared e-mails with me showing that a Tacoma Weekly employee had confirmed the contract in June of 2017 for $9,760.42. But when the guides never showed up, and when the theater called to ask what happened, they were told by Weymer that he needed an additional $4,894.25 on top of the $9,760.42 the theater had already paid, according to Cowan. The executive director said it felt like Weymer was “trying to extort us out of more money.” With the festival just a couple weeks away, Cowan said the Grand Cinema decided to spend an additional $5,000 printing the guide at a different company.
Weymer disputed Cowan’s version of the events and said the Grand Cinema was ultimately responsible for canceling the printing. The publisher had no direct response when I said it appeared they did this only after the Weekly missed a deadline and breached a contract. He only said that he had always lost money on the deal.
“They canceled the printing at the very last minute," Weymer said. "There was a dispute but I was still going to press. I was obligated to do it. They canceled the job but they were also going off of last year’s bid."
The e-mails Cowan shared with me contradict Weymer’s account of the events, and the Grand Cinema is far from the only business that has had problems getting money from the Weekly. John Weymer and his companies have lost eight lawsuits in Pierce County Court, including some from landlords and publishers, that claimed Tacoma Weekly had not paid its bills. Sound Publishing won a $139,675.48 judgment against the Weekly for failing to pay their agreed upon fees.
When I brought up the Sound Publishing judgment, Weymer claimed that Sound Publishing still owed him money. “I paid my printing bill, they never paid their advertising bill. But that’s settled and that’s over,” Weymer said.
A company called AF Investments won a $29,922.24 judgment against Weymer and his business in February of 2017 for failing to pay rent at an office space the company was leasing in Tacoma.
Weymer said he had withheld rent from AF Investments because they had not properly maintained the building. He also admitted to not paying rent in the past.
“I have a small business. I struggle. And sometimes you have to pay Peter before you pay Paul and printing is more important than rent,” Weymer said.
Tim Meikle, the former operations manager for almost 10 years, said Weymer would frequently fail to pay his printing bills.
“Usually it would get to $100,000 or so and the newspaper and the company would get nervous that they’re not getting their money and cut them off,” Meikle said. “We would have times where the trucks to deliver papers would literally sit down the road and wait for a payment till they would drop off the papers.”
Weymer may have lost his biggest business contract this year when the Puyallup Tribe severed ties with the Tacoma Weekly. Weymer’s company had been contracted to help produce and distribute the tribe’s paper, bringing in a substantial portion of the Weekly’s income, according to multiple sources. Sue Evans, a spokesperson for the tribe, confirmed that Weymer’s company was no longer contracted with the tribe but declined to comment further because of the potential for litigation surrounding the contract.
Cowan, the Grand Cinema’s executive director, said the non-profit theater never got any of their money back for the nearly $10,000 printing job that they never received. He said they had started looking into getting an attorney, but figured it would take too much in legal fees to get the lost dollars back.
“For a while, we just hoped he would give us our money back,” Cowan said. “We’ve looked into legal but it costs thousands of dollars. Even if we won, we might just be increasing our loss by doing that.”
Cowan is far from the only person to walk away from trying to get money owed by Weymer.
In the summer of 1998, Laird Bennion was 17 and heading into his junior year of high school at Charles Wright Academy, a prep school in Tacoma. He needed a summer job and had spent time working on his high school’s newspaper, so he decided to see if the Tacoma Weekly needed any help.
“I just walked into John Weymer’s office at the beginning of the summer and asked for a job and he gave me a job on the spot,” Bennion said.
Bennion got his friend, Cody Truscott, a job as well so they both started working for the local weekly. On their first day, they said they found out why the newspaper was hiring when they were instructed to clean some windows after eggs were thrown against the building.
“It was my first day and I came in and basically was handed some paper towels and some Windex. All we knew was that the previous designer had quit, we didn’t know why. Thinking back it’s probably pretty clear why,” Truscott said.
At first, they both had a great time at the paper. They said Weymer gave the 17-year-olds complete freedom with the newspaper. They said they would repurpose press releases into stories with fake bylines, Bennion would get free movie tickets and write reviews, and Truscott would lay out the paper and send it to the printer with minimal supervision from Weymer.
“If we had gotten paid it would have been a lot of fun but at the end of the day he screwed us both,” Bennion said. “There were people calling all the time saying he screwed them out of money, but I was just too dumb to realize what was going on.”
The two men, who now live in Seattle, said Weymer paid their agreed upon wages for the first few weeks of work but then stopped paying. They kept working, hoping by the end of the summer they would get a paycheck again.
“At the end of the summer when we told him, ‘No more screwing around, we need to get paid,’ he accused me of stealing concert tickets and he accused Cody of theft,” Bennion said.
Both men said they were owed around $800 to $1,000 at the end of the summer.
Weymer denied knowing or ever employing either Bennion or Truscott. “We had interns and we had all kinds of stuff. And I don’t even remember who that was,” Weymer said. Both men said they were hired as employees and Bennion told me “the word intern was never used.”
Weymer’s newspapers confirm that the two men worked for the paper. Copies of the Weekly archived at the Tacoma Library show Truscott and Bennion’s names listed as production staff for the paper starting in the June 25, 1998 issue. Truscott’s name was printed on the masthead for every issue until Aug. 14, 1998. Bennion’s name was listed until the July 10, 1998 issue.
They said they never sought any legal action against Weymer, mostly because they were teenagers and didn’t know what they could do. This was before the Internet made it easier to find legal advice. Truscott said when he would go back to Tacoma and still see the Weekly in print it put a silver lining on his experience—he thought Weymer may have improved his business practices.
“I thought maybe he has gone legit. Maybe me getting screwed over a long time ago when he was having a tough time allowed him to build the paper into something that was sustaining,” Truscott said.
But over 20 years after his experience at the Weekly he saw my story about Rachelle Abellar and her allegations of wage theft and decided to reach out to me.
“So to hear that he is still screwing people over, now I have no silver lining.”
When I sat down in the Tacoma Weekly’s office last week there was one person that John Weymer could not wait to talk about. While Weymer was apprehensive to discuss some employee’s allegations against him, and he started crying when recounting other allegations, he seemed like he couldn’t wait to discuss Josh Reisberg.
Reisberg told me he worked at the Weekly between 2014 and 2017, delivering papers, helping manage drivers, and occasionally writing local music reviews. He said as time went on, paychecks started to bounce frequently, especially the checks that were being given to the contracted delivery drivers.
“I found myself just playing referee between the drivers and him and their banks and his banks. The majority of my time was just damage control and forcing him to just write a new check,” Reisberg said.
Meikle, the former office manager, said delivery drivers were affected the most by the bounced checks.
“Delivery drivers were definitely bounced around quite a bit and were told they would get a check and then he wouldn’t be there the next day,” Meikle said.
Andrew Burden took on a summer job delivering the papers in 2017 when he was 17. He claims he quit the job after he received four bounced checks in a row. He said Weymer threatened him when he asked him for the money. “Weymer told me, ‘I don’t have to pay you anything and if you don’t get out right now I will hurt you or have someone hurt you.’”
Weymer denied ever threatening Burden. The teenager said he eventually received $600 from Weymer after he filed a claim with L&I and filed a lawsuit in small claims court.
Reisberg said Weymer would knowingly write checks that would bounce.
“At least once or twice a month he would not have money to cover the drivers’ paychecks. He would know this but he would still issue the checks,” Reisberg said. “You know that’s a disaster. You think you have money but then it comes in and all the checks you pay for your bills come back and you get a fee for every returned bill.”
Reisberg said Weymer would frequently be abusive, including “grabbing you and putting his hands on your hands.” Reisberg decided to quit after over two years at the paper, but when he tried to get his last paycheck Weymer refused. Reisberg filed a wage theft claim with the state for his remaining $1,071.
Weymer made allegations against Reisberg throughout our interview. He said the former delivery manager was a bad employee that would throw newspapers away instead of delivering them. Weymer claimed Reisberg would steal things, and that he would physically threaten him.
“Josh is a white Jewish kid,” Weymer said. “Josh has been kind of a troubled little kid around here for years. He thinks he’s a rapper. Or he is a rapper, I should say.”
Reisberg denied that he had stolen anything and said his promotions while he was at the company showed his value as an employee.
“I started out there making $12 an hour and by the time he fired me I was making $17 an hour. I started out as a driver and by the time I was fired I was the manager of circulation, distribution, and a writer,” Reisberg said. “The trajectory and the raises speak for itself.”
Weymer made the same claims against Reisberg in a letter to the state’s Department of Labor and Industries, according to a letter Weymer wrote the state that was shared with me by a different ex-employee. The state decided in Reisberg’s favor, awarding the former employee his $1,071 in back pay plus an additional $1,000 penalty, according to an L&I citation that Reisberg shared with me. The penalty was included because Weymer “willfully violated wage payment requirements mandated under Washington law,” according to the L&I citation.
After Reisberg left the company, Jeannine Mitchell, the former delivery driver who now works for Uber Eats, said Weymer took over distribution management. She said at this point the delivery drivers were getting even more bounced checks and “just hanging on by our fingernails,” so she offered to take over delivery management. She quickly ran into problems with Weymer and before long she received a text message saying she was fired.
When Mitchell went to pick up her last paycheck, Weymer refused to pay. “I went to the office and he declared that he did not owe me any money and that I needed to get out of the office,” Mitchell said. So Mitchell took Weymer to small claims court where she won a $726 default judgment against Weymer, according to a small claims court filing she shared with me.
Weymer denied that he failed to pay Mitchell and said he was not aware of Mitchell’s small claims judgment against him.
Mitchell said she has still not received her small claims judgment from Weymer and doesn’t know how to enforce the judgment. That’s something I heard throughout reporting this story—people frequently did not know how or did not have the time and energy to hold Weymer accountable. His printers like Sound Publishing and landlords like AF Investments could afford to hire attorneys, but the high school students, young writers, and delivery drivers had far less recourse.
During my interview with Mitchell, she talked about problems she’s been having with her knee and a recent knee surgery that she hoped would make it easier to get back out on the road delivering papers for other newspapers and working for Uber Eats. When I seemed astonished that she had so much energy she quipped: “I’m a Missouri girl. We’re Plains people.”
As I ended the call she wanted to make sure that I knew she wasn’t letting her time at the Tacoma Weekly get her down.
“We have kept positivity and tried to not let John Weymer ruin us. It makes me mad but I’m not going to let him eat away at life.”
That’s a sentiment that I heard throughout my reporting for this story. Weymer’s former employees were passionate about the Tacoma Weekly and its place in the community. That’s partly why they worked for Weymer even after the checks started bouncing.
Cedric Leggin, the former operations manager, told me it was the Weekly’s value to the city that kept him at the job. “Weekly community papers are needed and it sucks that this has to happen to ours in Tacoma. I’m from Tacoma, I don’t want that to go down in my city,” Leggin said. Josh Reisberg said it hurt that after leaving the paper he had to get out of writing. “Tacoma is a small market. I will do some writing for artists and freelance here and there but the Weekly was all that’s left,” Reisberg said.
Tim Meikle, the operations manager for nearly ten years, said that he worked for Weymer for so long because he saw the good that the paper did in the community.
“Are there some good things that John does? You bet. He’s not a completely evil person. There are some things he does for the community through the newspaper that are really positive,” Meikle said. “I’m sad to see a newspaper like the Tacoma Weekly not succeed. It’s a great newspaper for the community and employs some amazing writers. It’s too bad that the leadership is failing.”