Weber alleges client, employee theft by H+K, seeks restraining order

DALLAS: Weber Shandwick is seeking an injunction and temporary restraining order against Hill+Knowlton Strategies, its COO Ken Luce, and newly hired EVP Jody Venturoni in a Dallas district court, alleging they stole confidential information, clients, and employees.

DALLAS: Weber Shandwick is seeking an injunction and temporary restraining order against Hill+Knowlton Strategies, its COO Ken Luce, and newly hired EVP Jody Venturoni in a Dallas district court, alleging they stole confidential information, clients, and employees. Weber is demanding a jury trial, according to court filings obtained by PRWeek.

The court has since issued a temporary restraining order against H+K.

Weber is alleging that Venturoni and Luce used their positions as former Weber employees to attract other former colleagues and clients to H+K despite signing agreements pledging not to do so, according to the court documents. Both Luce and Venturoni were subject to Weber's code of conduct, which prevented them from soliciting Weber's clients or employees for one year, Weber claims.

Before resigning as Weber's Southwestern president, Venturoni copied confidential client information to her personal possession, including detailed client programs and plans for this year; analysis of 2011 client programs; client financial arrangements and performance reports for last year; and client financial projects for 2012, among others, according to court documents. Venturoni joined H+K as EVP on January 3 after announcing her resignation from Weber on December 9.

“These are among the most confidential documents belonging to Weber Shandwick and its clients, and possession by H+K and its employees would enable H+K to unfairly compete with Weber Shandwick for clients and employees,” Weber claimed in the court filings obtained by PRWeek.

Elisabeth Rutledge, SVP at H+K, said via email that the agency was “surprised and disappointed to learn about this action” and that the firm will “vigorously defend itself and promptly address and resolve this dispute.”

“Hill+Knowlton is a desirable place to work, has no need for materials from competitors, and it is not surprising that people seek to work here as we grow the office,” she said, via email.

Weber declined to comment on the action.

Weber is requesting a temporary restraining order, temporary injunction, and permanent injunction against H+K, Luce, and Venturoni, preventing them from using or disclosing Weber's confidential information or that of its clients.

Weber claims Venturoni “concealed her intentions” to resign from the agency to join H+K, allowing her “to fully exploit her position as president of Weber Shandwick Southwest for [the] defendants' benefit,” according to court documents. Before leaving Weber, Venturoni allegedly downloaded or emailed confidential information to her personal email account. However, Venturoni, who joined Weber in January 2000, tried to delete evidence of her email, but it remained on Weber's system. Weber's internal IT team created a list of emails Venturoni allegedly sent from her work email address to her personal account. Weber examined the messages and their attachments last week, according to the court documents.

Luce, the former president of Weber's Southwest and California market and a 15-year veteran of the agency, resigned from Weber in fall 2010 and entered into an independent contractor agreement with the agency before becoming global COO of H+K, then known as Hill & Knowlton, last January. His confidentiality restrictions remained in effect until October 31, 2011, according to court filings.

However, Luce “repeatedly met with various Weber Shandwick employees and clients in order to directly solicit them to leave Weber Shandwick and join H+K,” Weber claimed in court documents. Specifically, Weber claims Luce “held two separate meetings with a Weber Shandwick client in order to discuss the client leaving Weber Shandwick for H+K.” Weber also lists numerous occurrences where Luce allegedly met with Weber employees to entice them to leave the agency for H+K, although it does not name the specific employees.

H+K appointed former Weber VP Sergio Morales SVP and head of its New York consumer marketing practice in October 2011. Mike Flanagan and Anne Tramer both left SVP roles at Weber to join H+K since November, according to their LinkedIn profiles.

Weber parent company Interpublic Group informed Luce in a December 15 letter that it was concerned with the recent resignations of several Weber employees to join H+K and was investigating his possible role. Weber said in court filings that “written responses were received, [but] adequate assurances have not been provided.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the start date of Sergio Morales at H+K Strategies. He joined the firm in September 2011 and was named to his current post the following month.

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