Tesla’s long history of silencing whistleblowers

On December 30, the day after Tesla CEO Elon Musk sold $1 billion worth of stock in his company, Tesla announced the recall of nearly half a million of its electric vehicles for security reasons. When asked if this massive recall surprised her, former Tesla employee, automotive engineer and whistleblower Cristina Balan replied, “There will be many more recalls like this. Tesla hid numerous security issues to protect its stock price.

Balan worked at Tesla from 2010 to 2014. She was highly regarded in the company and was so instrumental in designing the battery for Tesla’s first “Model S” sedan that, as a tribute, Tesla management incorporated her initials into the battery shell she designed.

After her work with the drums, Balan transferred to the interior design team. It was then that Balan began noticing and documenting things that she believed would compromise the company’s products: contracts awarded based on personal relationships, safety issues with indoor floor mats and a history of these problems concealed by the managers.

She was frustrated and seemed to find an outlet when Tesla CEO Elon Musk sent a company-wide email that would later be hailed in the business press as an example of “the art of masterful communication. In that email, Musk laid out his vision for what good communication at Tesla should look like. His email included this exhortation:

“Anyone at Tesla can and should email/talk to anyone else based on what they think is the fastest way to resolve an issue for the benefit of the whole of the company. You can talk to your manager’s manager without his permission, you can talk directly to a vice president in another department, you can talk to me. . . . Also, you should consider yourself obligated to do so. do until the right thing happens.

Balan took Musk at his word. On April 12, 2014, she emailed him asking if they could talk directly about the issues that were bothering her.

A few days later, Balan was escorted to a small room at her Tesla workplace in Fremont, Calif., and human resources staff asked her to resign. Balan agreed, but only because, according to her, they threatened that if she decided to stay, the company would expel other members of her team. This threat against his team members resonated with Balan, who comes from Romania.

Despite resigning, Balan refused to believe Musk knew what happened.

Despite resigning, Balan refused to believe Musk knew what happened. On April 19, she sent another email directly to Musk, imploring him to notice his forced resignation, writing, “I’m afraid to go into detail because I don’t trust who will receive this. email first! But they [sic] There are quite a few people with whom we would like to talk to you and tell you what they have been through. . . .”

Having received no response from Musk, Balan and Tesla entered into mediation to resolve various issues related to his previous employment with the company. But when mediation failed, she filed for arbitration in April 2015. Because she had signed an arbitration agreement – ​​an agreement in which the parties agree to resolve any disputes by arguing their respective cases before an arbitrator. impartial – she was not allowed to file a complaint. for wrongful dismissal or discrimination in an ordinary court, or to bring his case before a judge or jury.

Balan’s story was finally told in a 2017 article in the Huffington Post. After the publication, Tesla demanded that the news website publish the company’s 600-word response. In the message, Tesla maintained that Balan had chosen to resign, and also that she had worked on personal projects during company time and had used company money to travel without permission. (As of 2022, Tesla has never provided evidence that either of these charges is true.)

Balan, viewing the article as an embezzlement charge, sued Tesla for defamation in federal court in Washington state, where she had lived since 2014. Tesla’s attorneys countered that Balan could not sue for defamation in federal court because she was still bound to the arbitration by her original employment contract.

In June 2019, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Marsha J. Pechman ruled that while certain aspects of the Balan case should remain in arbitration (and, therefore, not be made public) , other aspects, including his defamation claim, could be heard in federal court. court and made public.

It’s no surprise that Balan, through her experience with Tesla, has become an advocate against forced arbitration. Now, nearly eight years after leaving the company, Balan is determined to keep fighting. One of the things that bothers her the most is the clear intention of Tesla – and, in particular, CEO Musk – to crush all criticism and keep the information from the public.

Balan tells The progressive that when the arbitration process began, she cared less about any monetary amount than about being allowed access to the email she first sent to Musk. “What’s really critical is that after I start arbitration with them, the main thing I want to know is if he actually got the email,” she says. “It was the only thing I wanted . . . and they didn’t want to produce it.

It took over sixteen months for Balan to receive what she calls the “raw email” she first sent to Musk. When she finally received it, she could see from the email’s metadata that it had been opened by Musk and was forwarded to Tesla’s human resources manager seven minutes after it was opened. Upon learning of this, Balan requested in his first arbitration a copy of the email sent by Musk, including any additional messages from him that may be in it.

Balan says she never received that second email, even though the referee ruled in a decision sua sponte that she was allowed to see it. This decision was made by the arbitrator when Balan was not present, and Balan submits that the lawyer she had employed during this arbitration did not convey this decision or the content of the email to her during ten months.

Balan isn’t the only whistleblower who has seen how difficult it can be to go up against Tesla and Elon Musk.

Steven Henkes, who worked as a field quality manager for SolarCity (a subsidiary Tesla first acquired in 2016), has been trying since 2019 to educate the public about defects in the company’s solar panels that can cause fires. In a 2019 complaint he filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, or SEC, Henkes urged Tesla management to “shut down fire-prone solar systems, report to safety regulators, and educate consumers,” as Reuters put it.

Later that year, Walmart filed a lawsuit against Tesla that was later dropped, accusing the company’s solar power system of causing fires at seven stores. In March 2021, it was revealed that the US Consumer Product Safety Commission was also investigating the company’s solar panels and questioning Henkes. In a CNBC report, Henkes relayed a message through his attorney: “There continues to be a real threat of fires due to serial faults at Tesla’s facilities.”

Henkes was fired from Tesla in 2020 and filed his own lawsuit against the company for wrongful termination. In 2021, he filed a Freedom of Information Act request simply to find out the status of his original complaint. In response, the SEC confirmed in a September letter that “the investigation whose records you seek is still active and ongoing.”

Balan and Henkes must now continue to wait and pursue their separate cases in court. Balan is set to appeal the latest decision in his case. If she wins that, she will earn the right to argue her case in open court, where she hopes her evidence of corporate wrongdoing dating back nearly a decade will become part of the public record. The Henkes v. Tesla wrongful termination case is still pending.

And the cases just keep coming. In December 2021, six current and former employees of Tesla’s electric car plant in the San Francisco Bay Area and a service center in Southern California filed a complaint of sexual harassment in the workplace and that the company was aware of the harassment but took no action to remedy it. A month earlier, Jessica Barraza, a Tesla employee in Fremont, filed a lawsuit accusing the company of “rampant sexual harassment.”

Amid all this litigation, Musk divested about $1 billion worth of the company’s stock on Dec. 29, 2021, the day before Tesla’s massive recall was announced. This followed Musk’s stock sale in November of enough shares to net him nearly $5 billion.

Musk urged his horde of Twitter followers to “Spread Tesla!” by purchasing a sterling silver whistle.

And the stock isn’t all it sells. Last November, Musk urged his horde of followers on Twitter for “Whistle Tesla!” by purchasing a sterling silver whistle (in the form of the as-yet-unreleased Tesla Cybertruck) for just $50.

The whistles sold out almost immediately.

Whistleblower advocates weren’t amused. As FBI whistleblower and Whistleblower Network News reporter Jane Turner tweeted, “We may not have sixty-five million followers, but we do have the truth.”

Musk could be forgiven for thinking he has the right to taunt whistleblowers on Twitter. On December 13, he was named “Person of the Year” by Time magazine. In bestowing this recognition, the magazine’s editors described Musk as a “clown, genius, edgelord, visionary, industrialist, showman, cad; a crazy hybrid of Thomas Edison, PT Barnum, Andrew Carnegie and Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan.

Balan, when asked about fighting this battle in 2022, says she “never imagined that Musk would ignore [the issue she raised in her email]. You know how many stories, how many whistleblowers, they went to the press, and they went public. I never thought to go public because I didn’t want to hurt Tesla.

Balan believed in Tesla. The company and Elon Musk – as “visionary” as he is – might have served their customers better if they believed her.

About Robert Pierson

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