Part of Tony West’s mandate in his job as chief legal officer is to help reduce Uber’s various legal entanglements.CreditCreditCarlos Chavarría for The New York Times
SAN FRANCISCO — Not long after Tony West joined Uber as chief legal officer in November 2017, he began a delicate task: crafting a transparency report to quantify how many people had been sexually assaulted during Uber rides.
The effort was part of Mr. West’s mandate to help clean up Uber, which had been grappling with legal entanglements, safety issues and a problematic workplace culture.
So Mr. West directed Uber employees to work with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a nonprofit, to review 212 instances of sexual misconduct that occurred during rides in 2017. He listened to customer service calls, including one in which an Uber driver said he had raped a passenger. And the company began auditing past complaints to determine whether it had evidence of old assaults.
Nearly 16 months later, the work is far from over. “This is a hugely underreported set of situations,” Mr. West, 53, said. “Those numbers, as we continue to count them, they actually might go up.”
Since Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s chief executive, brought in Mr. West to help turn around the ride-hailing company and professionalize it, the attorney has swept aside many of its highest-profile legal woes. While Uber is still dealing with hundreds of legal cases, Mr. West settled a tabloid-worthy trade secrets lawsuit last year by Alphabet’s self-driving car business, Waymo, and negotiated a multistate settlement over a vast 2016 data breach.
But the sexual assault transparency report, which Mr. West plans to release this year, underlines just how much more work Uber needs to do — and how thorny the challenge can be to navigate.
“He is very upfront about the fact that it’s not going to be pretty,” Tammy Albarran, Uber’s deputy general counsel, said of Mr. West and the transparency report.
The work is especially important as Uber gears up for a highly anticipated initial public offering. Lyft, Uber’s main rival in the United States, made its offering prospectus public on Friday and is likely to begin trading on the stock market next month.
Uber, which may go public at a $120 billion valuation, would dwarf Lyft. But to pull off a successful offering, the company must reduce its legal exposure and show that it has revamped its culture and cares about the safety of passengers.
Mr. West, a former Justice Department official and the brother-in-law of Senator Kamala Harris, the California Democrat who is running for president, said he was hitching his reputation to Uber and its changes.
“I had a reputation that I was also putting on the table, right?” he said in a recent interview.
A native of the Bay Area, Mr. West graduated from Harvard University and Stanford Law School. He rose to prominence as an assistant attorney general in the Obama administration, during which he urged the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act and worked to reduce the number of detainees in the military prison at Guantánamo Bay.
In 2014, he became general counsel of PepsiCo, where, he said, he learned how to operate in a Fortune 50 company. Then in 2017, Mr. Khosrowshahi came calling.
At the time, Uber was reeling from the ouster of Travis Kalanick as chief executive and the aftermath of an investigation into its workplace, amid other issues. Mr. Khosrowshahi was tapped to stabilize the company and eventually take it public. Over several dinners in New York, he pitched Mr. West on the idea of turning Uber into a more self-critical company.
Uber needed someone with “a great amount of negotiation prowess and relationships,” Mr. Khosrowshahi said. “He’s got both.”
Mr. West jumped ship. “There was nothing I was going to do that was going to fundamentally change the trajectory” of PepsiCo, he said.
At Uber, Mr. West began rebuilding the legal department with several former Justice Department colleagues. He also confronted some urgent legal problems. They included a trial in early 2018 to defend the company against allegations that it had stolen trade secrets from Waymo in the race to build self-driving cars.
The weekend before the trial started that February, Mr. West met with Waymo’s lawyers to settle the case. The conversation ended in an impasse.
After the trial opened, embarrassing revelations about Uber quickly tumbled out. Mr. West said that he had texted Kevin Vosen, Waymo’s general counsel, from the courtroom and that the two had met during breaks to keep trying for a settlement. Waymo declined to comment on Mr. Vosen’s conversations with Mr. West.
Four days after the trial began, the two sides struck a deal. Uber agreed to provide Waymo, which had sought $1 billion in damages, with 0.34 percent of its stock, valued then at $245 million, as well as the right to inspect Uber’s self-driving technology.
At the same time, Mr. West worked to placate investigators who were digging into the 2016 data breach, which Uber had kept secret and which had prompted numerous state lawsuits for violation of data breach notification laws. Mr. West said he had kept in frequent contact with Lisa Madigan, who was the Illinois attorney general, to hash out a settlement. The two had worked together while he was at the Justice Department.
Ms. Madigan said that being friends with Mr. West “in some ways makes it easier” to negotiate. “We both know the law, we both know the problem, and we both know there needs to be a resolution,” she said.
In September, Mr. West and Ms. Madigan agreed that Uber would pay $148 million to all 50 states to settle the data breach investigation.
Mr. West also worked with Mr. Khosrowshahi to change Uber’s culture. Last year, Mr. West helped Uber settle a $10 million pay discrimination lawsuit by three former female employees. And he helped settle a lawsuit by nine women who had been raped, kidnapped, assaulted or harassed by drivers. The company declined to disclose the terms of the deal.
Eric H. Holder Jr., the former attorney general, who led an inquiry into Uber’s workplace in 2017 and is friends with Mr. West, said of the company: “They still have work to do, but made really significant progress in a short period of time.”
Some of the work today revolves around the sexual assault transparency report. Uber is now training its customer service representatives to sort incidents into 21 categories. The process is complex; for instance, Uber considers a touch between a person’s thighs to be sexual, while a touch on other areas of the thigh is not.
Because the company operates in 64 countries, the training must also be localized. That is tricky because of varied cultural norms — a kiss on the cheek might be a common greeting in Europe but would be unexpected in the United States, Mr. West noted.
“There are these differing concepts and views about what can be considered intimate, or sexual, or appropriate or inappropriate,” he said.
How long Mr. West will stay at Uber is unclear; he has already faced questions internally about whether he will leave to join Ms. Harris’s presidential campaign. Mr. West is married to Maya Harris, Senator Harris’s sister and campaign chairwoman. He also co-led Ms. Harris’s transition team after she was elected to the Senate in 2016.
Ms. Harris’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
When asked if he would return to government, Mr. West demurred and said a presidential victory for Ms. Harris would most likely prevent him from working in the administration because he was a relative.
“It would depend on a lot of things, not the least of which is: What would I be going back for?” he said.