Another former Tesla security manager says the company spied on employees

By Sean O'Kane

Photo by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

A second ex-Tesla employee has filed an official whistleblower tip with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) alleging the company illegally surveilled its employees. Former global security lead Sean Gouthro filed the tip on January 24th, according to whistleblower lawyer Stuart Meissner, via Business Insider.

Gouthro can also reportedly corroborate claims Tesla interfered with internal investigations into the alleged theft of $37 million of raw material at the Gigafactory, and failed to disclose this and other illegal activities to the authorities and to shareholders, Meissner said Monday.

Meissner said Gouthro’s tip backs up the account of Karl Hansen, another former member of Tesla’s security team and a client of Meissner’s. Hansen filed a whistleblower tip last August that said Tesla had installed “specialized router equipment within its Nevada Gigafactory designed to capture employee cell phone communications and/or retrieve employee cell phone data.” Hansen had also claimed his team found evidence of a “substantial drug trafficking” ring at the Gigafactory, as well as the massive theft of raw materials, but that Tesla “instructed [him] not to report the thefts to outside law enforcement.”

A spokesperson for Tesla pushed back on Gouthro’s statements. “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 the media,” the spokesperson said in an email.

Gouthro was fired from Tesla in January after a little more than a year with the company, the spokesperson said. He was “let go for poor performance, including repeated failure to demonstrate and understand best practices in the security industry,” the spokesperson said. Tesla also said that Gouthro was interviewed in August and September 2018 by a company compliance attorney as “part of an internal investigation into some of the very issues he is now bringing forward,” but said he “raised absolutely none of the concerns he has now brought to the media.”

Hansen also said last year that Tesla had illegally surveilled Martin Tripp, another former employee turned whistleblower (and a former client of Meissner’s). Tripp alleged last June that Tesla was putting damaged batteries in some of its Model 3s. Tesla sued Tripp on June 20th for allegedly hacking its internal systems and stealing gigabytes of data, and for disseminating trade secrets to third parties. Tripp later countersued, claiming defamation. The case is currently in discovery.

Gouthro has a connection to Tripp’s story beyond having hired Meissner. On the same day Tesla filed its lawsuit, Gouthro — in his role as security manager — called the police and claimed Tesla had received a tip from a female friend of Tripp’s who said he was on his way to the Gigafactory to “shoot up Tesla,” according to a report filed by the Storey County Sheriff’s Office.

When the Sheriff’s department arrived at the Gigafactory, they met with Gouthro, who said at the time that Tesla was “able to verify the information in regards to Tripp being armed,” according to the police report. The sheriffs were able to get Tripp on the phone, and he agreed to meet. When they encountered Tripp in person, he was “visibly shaken and crying,” according to the police report. He showed the sheriffs emails he had traded with Elon Musk (which he later sent to a number of news outlets) where the Tesla CEO called him a “horrible human being” for “framing” the company.

Ultimately, the sheriffs determined there was no threat. Tesla said it never received the name of Tripp’s supposed friend and tipster.

The news of Gouthro’s whistleblower tip comes at a hectic time for Tesla, which is just days away from revealing its fifth car, the Model Y compact SUV. Early Monday morning, Tesla partially reversed its decision to close many of its stores as a way to cut costs and offer more affordable cars. Musk is also due to file a brief with the Southern District of New York on Monday explaining why he shouldn’t be held in contempt of court for allegedly violating his September 2018 settlement with the SEC over his abandoned attempt to take Tesla private.