When Elon Musk Tried to Destroy a Tesla Whistleblower
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- By the larger-than-life standards of Elon Musk, the story was far from a blockbuster. On June 4, 2018, Business Insider reported that Tesla Inc. was scrapping or reworking 40 percent of the raw materials at the Gigafactory, its huge battery plant in the Nevada desert. The article cited a source who figured the inefficiency had cost Musk’s electric car company $150 million, describing giant piles of scrap materials in the factory. Tesla denied the report, and a few hours later, the world moved on.
The world, that is, except Elon Musk. Although he wasn’t asked about the Business Insider story the following day at the company’s annual meeting, he stewed for weeks, dispatching a team of investigators to try to figure out who’d shared the information with the press.
The leaker, they determined, was one Martin Tripp, a slight man of 40 who’d spent his career in a series of low-level manufacturing jobs before finding his way to the assembly line at the Gigafactory. Tripp later claimed to be an idealist trying to get Tesla to tighten its operations; Musk saw him as a dangerous foe who engaged in “extensive and damaging sabotage,” as he wrote in a staff memo. He implied that Tripp had shared the data not only with the press but also with “unknown third parties.”
Could larger forces be at work? Musk wondered out loud. Could Tripp be coordinating with one of Tesla’s many enemies—oil companies, rival automakers, or Wall Street short sellers? “There are a long list of organizations that want Tesla to die,” he warned.
On June 20, the company sued Tripp for $167 million. Later that day, Tripp heard from the sheriff’s department in Storey County, Nev. Tesla’s security department had passed a tip to police. An anonymous caller had contacted the company to say Tripp was planning a mass shooting at the Gigafactory.
When the police confronted Tripp that evening, he was unarmed and in tears. He said he was terrified of Musk and suggested the billionaire might have called in the tip himself. A sheriff’s deputy attempted to cheer up Tripp and then called Tesla to tell the company that the threat, whoever had made it, was bogus. Tripp wasn’t dangerous.
Many chief executive officers would try to ignore somebody like Tripp. Instead, as accounts from police, former employees, and documents produced by Tesla’s own internal investigation reveal, Musk set out to destroy him.
Tesla’s PR department spread rumors that Tripp was possibly homicidal and had been part of a grand conspiracy. On Twitter, Musk suggested the Business Insider reporter, Linette Lopez, was on the payroll of short sellers and claimed Tripp had admitted to taking bribes from her in exchange for “valuable Tesla IP.” Lopez denied the allegation.
The Tripp incident was the beginning of a social media meltdown so epic that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission forced Tesla to appoint a so-called Twitter sitter, an in-house lawyer who’s supposed to vet Musk’s tweets. Since last summer, Musk’s antics have included:
① Baselessly accusing a British cave diver on Twitter of pedophilia;
③ Somehow igniting a feud with B-list hip-hop artist Azealia Banks (“Elon will learn very soon who is more powerful of us two,” Banks posted on Instagram);
Musk’s treatment of Tripp threatens to complicate this legal and regulatory mess. The security manager at the Gigafactory, an ex-military guy with a high-and-tight haircut named Sean Gouthro, has filed a whistleblower report with the SEC. Gouthro says Tesla’s security operation behaved unethically in its zeal to nail the leaker. Investigators, he claims, hacked into Tripp’s phone, had him followed, and misled police about the surveillance. Gouthro says that Tripp didn’t sabotage Tesla or hack anything and that Musk knew this and sought to damage his reputation by spreading misinformation.
A Tesla spokeswoman said in a statement that Gouthro’s allegations “are untrue and sensationalized,” but she didn’t comment on specifics. She pointed out that Gouthro never raised any concerns until he was fired for “poor performance.” Gouthro disputes this and says his performance reviews were mostly positive. He says he’s coming forward to let regulators and the public know what Tesla is capable of.
“They had the ability to do things I didn’t even know existed,” he says. “It scared the shit out of me.”
Gouthro isn’t the first person to blow the whistle on security operatives at a fast-growing transportation company. Two years ago, Richard Jacobs, a manager of global intelligence at Uber Technologies Inc., claimed his colleagues surreptitiously recorded conversations of rival executives and its own employees, among other ethically dubious actions. He later walked back some of his accusations, but Uber’s new management has since apologized, disavowed surveillance, and generally promised to be nicer. Two of the Uber investigators named by Jacobs, Nicholas Gicinto and Jacob Nocon, sued him for defamation, calling his claims “character assassination for cash.” They said his accusations would make it hard for them to get new jobs.
They were wrong. While the press reacted to Uber’s alleged misdeeds with shock—“F---ing blockbuster bonkers criminal allegations,” tweeted Amir Efrati, a reporter at the Information—Musk saw some promising recruits. In early 2018 he named Jeff Jones, a top Uber security executive, as his global security chief and hired Gicinto and Nocon as investigators, interviewing the three personally, according to Gouthro. Musk defended Gicinto to the tech news site Gizmodo, saying he’d been “thrown under the bus by Uber for the sins of others.” Tesla didn’t make Gicinto or Nocon available for comment; Jones, who left Tesla in November, declined to comment.
At this time, the Gigafactory, a huge three-story expanse 20 miles east of Reno, was a chaotic place. Musk had warned repeatedly that Tesla would have to survive “production hell” as it scrambled to hire staff and speed up manufacturing for the Model 3 sedan. He suffered through the experience, sleeping in his office and later giving tearful interviews in which he confessed he was near the end of his rope. “This is like—I tell you—the most excruciatingly hellish several months that I have ever had,” he said at Tesla’s annual meeting in June 2018.
It was this chaos that Tripp, a former U.S. Navy electronics technician who joined the company in late 2017, claimed he wanted to calm. He complained to superiors that the factory was in a constant state of flux and there were parts scattered everywhere, often in ways that seemed to him to be unsafe and wasteful. He suggested his bosses try to cut down on scrap, then wrote an email to Musk that went unanswered. “I kept bringing this up to management, supervisors, anyone who would listen,” Tripp would later tell the Guardian in an interview. “Everyone just said, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ ”
Gouthro says that if Tripp was ignored, it was partly because his problems barely rated in Nevada. The Gigafactory, one of the world’s largest buildings by floor area, had been filled with workers so quickly that it was almost impossible to control. Not long after Gouthro started in January 2018, he discovered that many employees, some of whom were living out of their car in the corners of the industrial park, were using cocaine and meth in the bathrooms. Others were having sex in parts of the factory that were still under construction. Gouthro says the scanners guards used to check badges were unreliable, so they’d wave in anyone with a piece of paper that looked legitimate. Local scrap yards called him to report thieves were trying to sell obscure electric vehicle parts.
Gouthro’s job was to come up with a system to bring order. A 32-year-old former U.S. Marine, he’s tall and buff, with a full sleeve of tattoos on his left arm. He’d worked at Facebook Inc. in an operations center that responded to dangerous situations spotted on live videos. The work had been upsetting, but Gouthro says Facebook’s was a far more professional environment than Tesla’s. Early on, according to Gouthro, a company lawyer told him that the previous head of security at the Gigafactory, Andrew Ceroni, had left after a bitter dispute. The lawyer said Ceroni had spied on a union meeting on Musk’s orders and then threatened to tell the world about it when he left the company. Ceroni declined to comment.
While Gouthro was trying to address the sex, drugs, and raucous disorganization, Tripp decided to go public. He had access to Tesla’s internal production database and dug into it to figure out just how much material was being wasted. He decided to go to Lopez, who’d written about Tesla for Business Insider, emailing and texting her numbers showing wasted material and pictures of battery parts that he said could catch fire.
Tripp hoped that when Lopez’s story came out, Tesla would be forced to make the changes he’d suggested. Instead, Tesla said the waste was normal and no damaged batteries made it into finished cars. “As is expected with any new manufacturing process, we had high scrap rates earlier in the Model 3 ramp,” Tesla told Business Insider. “We want to ensure that only the highest-quality parts are used to create the best vehicles for our customers.”
Meanwhile, Gouthro went to work to identify the leaker, reviewing video footage taken from the floor of the Gigafactory. At the same time, he says, Gicinto and Nocon worked backwards to see who’d accessed data that could result in the numbers published in Business Insider. It turned out Tripp had been the only one to look up the exact information the story cited.
The security team had their man, but they didn’t know what other secrets he might have seen. Tripp and a few other employees were asked to turn their laptops in for a routine update that was, in fact, a forensic audit. Gouthro also sent a plainclothes security guard to the assembly floor to keep an eye on Tripp.
When Tripp arrived at work on June 14, he was met by a human resources representative, who escorted him to a conference room. When he got there, Gicinto and Nocon were waiting. 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.
The interview lasted almost six hours. By the end, the investigators seemed sympathetic, telling Tripp what he’d done was “not even close to anything bad.” Tripp pulled out his phone and showed them a video of himself playing guitar. “Dude, that’s impressive,” one said. Gouthro says they debriefed a furious Musk via video conference. Tesla fired Tripp on June 19.
The following day, news of the lawsuit hit the internet. Tripp Googled himself and saw a story titled, “Martin Tripp: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know,” which said he lived in a rental apartment in nearby Sparks, Nev. Panicked about who might come find him, he sent an email to Musk. “You have what’s coming to you for the lies you have told to the public and investors,” he wrote.
His former boss, of course, engaged him with gusto. “Threatening me only makes it worse for you,” Musk replied. Later, he wrote: “You should be ashamed of yourself for framing other people. You’re a horrible human being.”
“I NEVER ‘framed’ anyone else or even insinuated anyone else as being involved in my production of documents of your MILLIONS OF DOLLARS OF WASTE, Safety concerns, lying to investors/the WORLD,” Tripp responded. “Putting cars on the road with safety issues is being a horrible human being!”
The anonymous shooting tip was called in to a Tesla call center a few hours later; then Gouthro relayed it to the Storey sheriff’s office. Tesla also printed out a BOLO flyer—short for “be on the lookout”—with Tripp’s smiling face on it and the words “do not allow on property.”
After Gouthro had called the sheriff, he made a second call—to the private investigators he says Tesla kept on retainer, asking them to find Tripp. The PIs found Tripp before the police did, tracking him to the Nugget casino in Reno. Gouthro says his boss told him not to tell the cops that Tesla had Tripp followed.
Meanwhile, Musk emailed a reporter at the Guardian: “I was just told that we received a call at the Gigafactory that he was going to come back and shoot people,” Musk wrote. “I hope you all are safe,” the reporter replied.
A sheriff’s deputy, Tony Dosen, met Tripp on the street outside the casino. Body cam footage shows Tripp shaking and crying as he walked up to the police. He said he didn’t have a gun. Then he sat down on a park bench and started telling the police what had been going on since he’d clumsily attempted to blow the whistle on one of the world’s richest and most famous men.
“They keep saying I’m stealing data,” Tripp can be heard saying between sobs. “I’m not that smart.” He said he learned about the threat he’d supposedly made from a Washington Post reporter, who’d called him after a tip from Tesla.
“This is sort of strange,” Dosen told Tripp. “It’s almost like a movie.”
The Storey County Sheriff’s Office is in Virginia City, a one-stoplight town, population 855, with a tired row of Old West tourist attractions. The area is so sleepy, officers are often called to chase raccoons out of the trash. Their main tasks include issuing work permits to each prostitute at the local brothel.
Gerald Antinoro is the sheriff, and he looks the part, dressed in black cowboy boots, a black denim jacket, and black Wranglers, with a pistol on his hip. In an interview in his office months after the incident, he still seems both mystified and amused by the Tesla shooting threat. The sheriff says that when he’d looked into the anonymous call after police confronted Tripp, the threat seemed less threatening than the company made it sound. The caller said Tripp was volatile but didn’t say he was on his way to shoot up the place. “You remember playing telephone as a kid?” Antinoro asks. “It got blown out of proportion.” He dropped the investigation when Tesla declined to make available a colleague of Tripp’s who might have called in the tip. To Antinoro, one of the strangest parts of the situation was that after he told the company the threat was false, it asked him to put out a press release hyping it. He declined, but Tesla publicized the incident anyway. The morning after the threat was debunked, a spokesman texted another reporter: “Yesterday afternoon we received a phone call from a friend of Mr. Tripp telling us that Mr. Tripp would be coming to the Gigafactory to ‘shoot the place up.’ ”
“It’s one of them head-scratchers,” the sheriff says. “The only way the press knew anything about it was from them.”
After he was outed, Tripp hired a lawyer who worked on contingency and filed a claim with the SEC, which receives 10,000 or so such reports a year. Fewer than 1 in 100 leads to a case, but the successful tipsters can get life-changing payouts—as much as 30 percent of any fine.
The lawyer, Stuart Meissner, specializes in representing whistleblowers. His claim to fame is working with a Monsanto Co. employee who got a $22 million award in 2016. But Meissner doesn’t seem too picky about his clients. His website features a whistle, a bag of money, and a picture of himself glowering. “Your whistleblower award could be worth millions of dollars,” it says. “We will beat any competing fee arrangement by 20 percent.” Meissner says he vets his clients extensively.
Tripp has since changed lawyers, but the publicity over the case caught the attention of one of Gouthro’s underlings, Karl Hansen. Last summer, Hansen, a former U.S. Army investigator and special agent, flew to New York and met with Meissner, who got him booked on the Fox Business channel. His allegations were wilder than Tripp’s: Hansen said Tesla was ignoring huge amounts of theft and drug-dealing at the Gigafactory. “A member of a Mexican cartel was in fact trafficking in potential large quantities of methamphetamine and cocaine,” he said on TV, complaining that his investigation was shut down prematurely.
Hansen flew back to Reno and reported to work at Tesla, apparently unaware that Musk might not take kindly to his impromptu media tour. He was fired that day. (Sheriff Antinoro said he’d looked into the allegations and didn’t find them credible. Musk told Gizmodo that Hansen was “super nuts,” using the peanut emoji.)
Gouthro says that after he got fired from Tesla in December, Hansen convinced him he should go public. He hired Meissner and filed a formal report to the SEC that backs up Hansen’s claims. “We started connecting some dots and some trends, and here we are,” Gouthro says. He worries that speaking out will make him unemployable but says that telling the truth is too important.
Gouthro and Hansen seem to sincerely believe that what they helped Tesla do to Tripp was wrong. They also say, without offering proof, that a Tesla investigator installed a device at the factory that monitored everyone’s private communications.
Even if what Gouthro and Hansen say is true, it’s not clear it would lead to a case for securities regulators. Tripp, on the other hand, has information that might be more relevant. He’s moved to Hungary, where his wife has family, to avoid attention; but the SEC called him in July and interviewed him for several hours. A person familiar with the meeting says Tripp told the agency that he’d found data that seemed to contradict the production numbers that Musk was touting. “What Tesla did to Tripp is terrible,” says Tripp’s lawyer, Robert Mitchell, who’s representing him in a countersuit against the company that alleges defamation. “His life is ruined. He’s scared of these guys.”
Musk, true to form, is still tangling with the SEC. The agency is asking a judge to hold him in contempt over violations of a settlement reached after the $420 tweet and could ask to have him removed from Tesla. The fight is a distraction from what has been, by any rational measure, an amazing year for Musk. Tesla hit its goal of making 5,000 cars a week in July. Last month the company lowered the price of its Model 3 to $35,000, a goal that once seemed unattainable. It will introduce an SUV, the Model Y, on March 14. In early March, SpaceX completed a successful test mission for a capsule that will one day send astronauts into orbit.
Antinoro says he’s told his force not to bother investigating crimes at the Gigafactory unless Tesla starts cooperating. Big business, he’s decided, is its own strange world. “Standard Oil was probably as weird as Elon Musk,” he says.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Max Chafkin at firstname.lastname@example.org
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