Tesla email reveals company’s effort to bribe and silence victims with cash

When a worker alleged discrimination, the company sought to keep him quiet: ‘If there is media attention, there will be no deal’



 Tesla’s defensive statements and settlement offer in a labor dispute provide a window into the way Elon Musk’s firm has tried to silence critics. Photograph: Hannah Mckay/Reuters

Tesla had a clear message to DeWitt Lambert, a black employee alleging racial discrimination: take our money and stay quiet.

“In terms of settlement, we are willing to pay Mr. Lambert [redacted], but only if we are to resolve this matter before there is media attention, preferably within the next few hours,” the Tesla general counsel, Todd Maron, wrote to the worker’s lawyers last year. “If there is media attention first, there will be no deal.”

The message, which a lawyer shared with the Guardian this week, provides a stark illustration of what some say is Tesla’s aggressive legal and media strategy in the face of serious complaints and potential negative press. The controversial PR tactics of Elon Musk’s car company have been on full display this week as the corporation has worked to publicly blame the victim of a fatal crash involving its autonomous technology.

In the three weeks since the death of Walter Huang, 38, whose Tesla Model X crashed while in Autopilot mode in California, the company has repeatedly argued that the victim was at fault, not its nascent technology, and it has openly feuded with US investigators about the release of information.

The defensive statements amid the current tragedy and the settlement offer in Lambert’s labor dispute provide a window into the way Musk’s firm has tried to silence critics – or publicly attack them. It’s a familiar approach in Silicon Valley, where companies work to block bad publicity by keeping complaints out of courtand resolving high-profile disputes behind closed doors.

But some say the tactics are particularly intense at Tesla, a firm that often receives fawning coverage from the tech press surrounding Musk’s ambitious projects and celebrity status.

Lambert, an electrician hired as a production associate in 2015, alleged in a harassment, retaliation and discrimination lawsuit that he was subject to “repeated racist epithets for months”, including “violent” rhetoric and attacks using the N-word. Last year, Tesla emphatically denied the claims in lengthy statements that sought to cast doubts on Lambert’s character and alleged that his lawyer was engaged in a “media blitz in an attempt to create a disingenuous narrative”.

Lambert’s attorney, Larry Organ, who has faced repeated criticisms from Tesla surrounding his civil rights litigation, shared the attorney’s settlement email with the Guardian as an example of the corporation’s efforts to stop bad press and silence workers with complaints.

The March 2017 email from Maron said if Lambert rejected the settlement and spoke out, “we will of course point out all of the facts in the attached document”. The document, according to Organ, attacked Lambert’s character.

Walter Huang, left, and his wife, Sevonne Huang.
 Walter Huang, left, and his wife, Sevonne Huang. Photograph: Handout/Minami Tamaki LLP

Organ further said Tesla had offered to have Musk meet Lambert as part of a settlement.

“Tesla is a big corporation, and they feel like they can bully people,” Organ said in an interview.

“And shut them up with money,” added Navruz Avloni, another attorney representing Lambert.

A Tesla spokesperson did not deny the contents of the email, but alleged that Maron was responding to Organ’s “breathtaking” demand for money and threat to go public with a story.

Organ told the Guardian the offer they discussed was just under $1m: “It seems to me they put a fairly low value on stealing a man’s dignity.”

There are numerous examples of highly combative PR and legal strategies by Tesla in the wake of scandal.

This week, attorneys for Huang’s family alleged that Tesla’s Autopilot feature was “defective” and “likely caused Huang’s death” when the car collided into a median. Tesla, however, said it was Huang’s fault: “The crash happened on a clear day with several hundred feet of visibility ahead, which means that the only way for this accident to have occurred is if Mr. Huang was not paying attention to the road, despite the car providing multiple warnings to do so.”

Tesla’s statement expressed condolences to the relatives, who gave a television interview about their grief. But the company also said: “The reason that other families are not on TV is because their loved ones are still alive.”

On Thursday, Tesla also went after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), a US agency that accused the company of improperly releasing information about the crash investigation.

“It’s been clear in our conversations with the NTSB that they’re more concerned with press headlines than actually promoting safety,” Tesla said in a statement announcing it would make an “official complaint to Congress”.

Tesla has previously attacked the media in response to reporting on discrimination claims. After a female engineer shared her allegations of harassment with the Guardian, Tesla issued lengthy statements criticizing the woman and ultimately fired her, accusing her of pursuing a “miscarriage of justice”. Tesla has also vehemently denied her underlying claims. Musk has also been personally defensive about claims that his factory is unsafe for workers.

After the first fatal crash involving Autopilot in 2016 – when Tesla’s technology did not prevent a car from colliding with a large white truck – the company defended its product.


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