This week, a third whistleblower came forward with damning allegations against Tesla. A former member of the Tesla security team, he is now corroborating claims by previous whistleblowers that Tesla hid information about the theft of raw materials from shareholders and conducted unauthorised surveillance on employees that included hacking at least one person’s phone.
Since last summer, there’s been a slow trickle of former Tesla employees coming forward to claim that the chaos at the company’s Gigafactory in the US state of Nevada goes beyond mere operational difficulties, painting a disturbing picture. On Tuesday, Bloomberg published an in-depth look at the allegations and what whistleblowers characterise as a culture of intimidation and paranoia at the electric vehicle company.
The first person to come forward was Martin Tripp, who told The Guardian that he was fired by Tesla after he admitted to leaking information to Business Insider about unsafe conditions at the Gigafactory and out of control waste of scrapped raw materials. Tripp claims that he went to the press after his concerns were ignored by his superiors. Tripp’s effort to tell the public about what he’d seen in his time as a process technician at Tesla probably ranks as one of the messiest attempts at whistleblowing in history.
Things spiralled out of control almost immediately for Tripp, and his claims were quickly overshadowed by Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s allegations that Tripp hacked into Tesla’s computer systems and was attempting to sabotage the company. Bloomberg’s report takes us back to before Tripp was fired and gives us more detail about the circumstances leading up to his dismissal.
On Monday, attorneys representing a former security manager at the Gigafactory, Sean Gouthro, announced that their client had recently filed a new whistleblower report with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Gouthro told Bloomberg that he was working security at the time of the company’s internal investigation into Tripp’s leaks. He says that after the security team traced the leaks to Tripp, he was asked to turn in his laptop for a routine update. According to Gouthro, the investigator then performed a forensic audit on the device. With evidence in hand, the team reportedly called Tripp in for an interview that lasted nearly six hours. Here’s the most shocking passage from the report:
According to a transcript viewed by Bloomberg Businessweek, the conversation started on friendly terms, with the two interrogators asking Tripp about reports he’d made to his bosses. “This to me is a major safety, a public safety concern,” Tripp said, patiently explaining the punctured battery cells he’d seen. They mentioned the Business Insider story repeatedly without asking Tripp if he was the source.
Then, two and a half hours into the interview, the investigators disclosed that Tripp had been the only one who’d accessed the manufacturing numbers. Tripp admitted he was the leaker. But the transcript shows that he denied accepting bribes—despite Musk’s later Twitter claims to the contrary—and he said he hadn’t given the information to anyone else. Gouthro, who wasn’t in the interrogation room, says at one point he saw a colleague reading the text messages and emails that Tripp was sending during breaks in the questioning. He says that somehow Tesla was able to access Tripp’s communications in real time.
“They had the ability to do things I didn’t even know existed,” Gouthro told Bloomberg. “It scared the shit out of me.” What makes Gouthro’s allegation that Tesla engages in spying on its enemies all the more interesting is that two of his superiors at the time have previously been accused of using similar tactics when they worked for Uber. In 2017, Richard Jacobs, a former manager of global intelligence at Uber Technologies Inc., claimed that the ride-share company engaged in hacking, trade secret theft, and surveillance of its rivals and on some occasions, its employees. Jacobs was sued by two of his former colleagues, Nicholas Gicinto and Jacob Nocon, and he has since retracted some of his claims. Gicinto and Nocon went on to land jobs at Tesla as investigators on its global security team. Their boss is Jeff Jones, a former Uber security executive. According to Gouthro, it was Gicinto and Nocon who led the data investigation into Tripp’s leaks.
Tripp is also reportedly terrified of what Tesla is capable of doing. He has moved to Hungary to get away from unwanted attention and is being sued by Tesla for $167 million (£125 million). Robert Mitchell, a lawyer representing Tripp in a countersuit against Tesla, told Bloomberg that Tripp’s life is ruined and “he’s scared of these guys.”
Almost as soon as Tripp walked out of his fateful interrogation, things began to spiral out of control. Gouthro told Bloomberg that the day after Tripp was fired, an anonymous tip came into the Tesla call centre that claimed Tripp was planning a mass shooting at the Gigafactory. Local police tracked down Tripp who was shaking and crying when they found him. They quickly determined that Tripp was not a threat and the call was bogus. But the local sheriff, Gerald Antinoro, told Bloomberg that he had to shut down his investigation of the call because “Tesla declined to make available a colleague of Tripp’s who might have called in the tip.”
We reached out to Tesla to ask why it didn’t cooperate with the sheriff’s investigation but a spokesperson said the company had no further comment on the matter and supplied us with the following statement about Gouthro:
Mr. Gouthro worked at Tesla for approximately one year as a Security Control Center Supervisor and, like Mr. Meissner’s other clients, was terminated from Tesla. Mr. Gouthro, a mid-level security professional, was let go for poor performance, including repeated failure to demonstrate and understand best practices in the security industry. In August 2018 and in September 2018, Mr. Gouthro was interviewed by a Tesla compliance attorney as part of an internal investigation into some of the very issues he is now bringing forward, and he raised absolutely none of the concerns he has now brought to the media.
Like the claims of Mr. Meissner’s other clients, Mr. Gouthro’s allegations are untrue and sensationalized, only intended to seek the attention of the media. For several weeks prior to today’s release, Mr. Meissner has been aggressively shopping this story to media.
The “Meissner” that Tesla is referring to is Stuart D. Meissner, an attorney who specialises in whistleblower cases and is representing Gouthro. Meissner’s other client is Karl Hansen, a former internal security employee at Tesla. Last August, Hansen filed a whistleblower report with the SEC in which he claimed that Tesla failed to disclose to shareholders that $37 million (£28 million) worth of raw materials had been stolen. He also claimed that Tesla used “specialised router equipment within its Nevada Gigafactory designed to capture employee cell phone communications and/or retrieve employee cell phone data.” Hansen specifically stated that Tesla had used those techniques to spy on Tripp.
Meissner did not respond to a request for comment sent by Gizmodo.
Gouthro claims that he can corroborate Hansen’s allegations and only time will tell if the SEC moves forward with a case based on these tips. Musk has been an ongoing headache for the regulator and they’re currently battling in court over whether or not Musk violated a settlement agreement with some reckless tweeting.
The one thing that’s crystal clear is that this whole situation is weird as hell and the Gigafactory sounds like a nightmare. [Bloomberg]
Featured image: Getty