HomeTechnologyHow a religious sect led Google into a lawsuit

How a religious sect led Google into a lawsuit

OREGON HOUSE, Calif. — In a small town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, a religious organization called the Fellowship of Friends has established an elaborate 1,200-acre complex filled with art and ornate architecture.

More than 200 miles from the Fraternity’s base in Oregon House, California, the religious sect, which believes greater awareness can be achieved by embracing fine art and culture, has also entrenched itself within a business unit in Google.

Even in Google’s easygoing office culture, which encourages employees to speak their minds and pursue their own projects, Fellowship’s presence in the business unit was unusual. As many as 12 Fellowship members and close relatives worked for the Google Developer Studio, or GDS, which produces videos showcasing the company’s technologies, according to a lawsuit filed by Kevin Lloyd, a 34-year-old former Google video producer.

Many others worked at company events, worked at registration desks, took pictures, played music, gave massages, and served wine. For these events, Google regularly purchased wine from an Oregon House winery owned by a Fellowship member, according to the lawsuit.

Mr. Lloyd claimed that he was fired last year because he complained about the influence of the religious sect. His lawsuit also names Advanced Systems Group, or ASG, the company that sent Mr. Lloyd to Google as a contractor. Most of the Google Developer Studio joined the team through ASG as contractors, including many Fellowship members.

The lawsuit, which Mr. Lloyd filed in California Superior Court in August, accuses Google and ASG of violating a California labor law that protects workers from discrimination. It is in the discovery stage.

The New York Times corroborated many of the claims in the lawsuit through interviews with eight current and former employees of Google’s business unit and examination of publicly available information and other documents. These included a list of members for the Fellowship of Friends, Google spreadsheets detailing event budgets, and photos taken at these events.

“We have long-standing employee and vendor policies to prevent discrimination and conflicts of interest, and we take them seriously,” a Google spokeswoman, Courtenay Mencini, said in a statement. “It is against the law to ask about the religious affiliations of those who work for us or our suppliers, but of course we will thoroughly investigate these reports for wrongdoing or improper hiring practices. If we find evidence of policy violations, we will take action.”

Dave Van Hoy, president of ASG, said in a statement that his company believed in “the principles of openness, inclusion and equality for people of all races, religions, gender identification and, above all, non-discrimination.”

“We continue to deny the plaintiff’s baseless allegations and hope to vindicate ourselves in court soon,” it added.

Founded in 1970 by Robert Earl Burton, a former San Francisco Bay Area school teacher, the Fellowship of Friends describes itself as an organization “available to anyone interested in pursuing the spiritual work of awakening.” It has 1,500 members worldwide, with about 500 to 600 in and around its compound at Oregon House. Members are typically required to give 10 percent of their monthly earnings to the organization.

Mr. Burton based his teachings on the Fourth Way, a philosophy developed in the early 20th century by a Greek Armenian philosopher and one of his students. They believed that while most people moved through life in a “waking dream” state, a higher consciousness was possible. Drawing on what he described as visits from angelic incarnations of historical figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Walt Whitman, Mr. Burton taught that true consciousness can be achieved by embracing the fine arts.

Within the organization’s compound in Northern California, called Apollo, the Fraternity performed operas, plays, and ballets; ran a critically acclaimed winery; and collected art from around the world, including more than $11 million in Chinese antiquities.

“They believe that to achieve enlightenment one must surround oneself with so-called higher impressions, what Robert Burton believed were the best things in life,” said Jennings Brown, a journalist who recently produced a podcast about the Fraternity called “revelations.” Mr. Burton described Apollo as the seed of a new civilization that would emerge after a global apocalypse.

The Fraternity came under fire in 1984 when a former member filed a $2.75 million lawsuit alleging that young men who joined the organization “had been forcibly and unlawfully sexually seduced by Burton.” In 1996, another former member filed a lawsuit accusing Mr. Burton of sexual misconduct with him when he was a minor. Both lawsuits were settled out of court.

The same year, the Fraternity sold its collection of Chinese antiquities at auction. In 2015, after his main winemaker left the organization, his winery production ceased. Fraternity president Greg Holman declined to comment for this article.

Peter Lubbers, a longtime Fellowship of Friends member, runs the Google Developer Studio. A July 2019 scholarship directory, obtained by The Times, lists him as a member. Former members confirm that he joined the Fraternity after moving to the United States from the Netherlands.

At Google, he’s a director, a position typically one rung below that of vice president in Google’s management, and typically receives annual compensation in the high six figures or low seven figures.

Previously, Mr. Lubbers worked for the staffing firm Kelly Services. M. Catherine Jones, Mr. Lloyd’s attorney, won a similar lawsuit against Kelly Services in 2008 on behalf of Lynn Noyes, who claimed that the company had not promoted her because she was not a member of the Fraternity. A California court awarded Ms. Noyes $6.5 million in damages.

Ms. Noyes said in an interview that Mr. Lubbers was among a large contingent of fellowship members from the Netherlands who worked for the company in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

At Kelly Services, Mr. Lubbers worked as a software developer before working at Oracle, the Silicon Valley software giant, according to his recently-deleted LinkedIn profile. He joined Google in 2012, initially working on a team that promoted Google technology to third-party software developers. In 2014, he helped create GDS, which produced videos promoting Google’s developer tools.

Kelly Services declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Under Mr. Lubbers, the group brought in several other members of the Fraternity, including a video producer named Gabe Pannell. A 2015 photo posted online by Mr. Pannell’s father shows Mr. Lubbers and Mr. Pannell with Mr. Burton, known as “The Master” or “Our Beloved Master” within the Fraternity. A caption on the photo, also recently removed, calls Mr. Pannell a “new student.”

Echoing the claims made in the lawsuit, Erik Johansen, a senior video producer who has worked for the Google Developer Studio since 2015 through ASG, said the team’s leadership abused the hiring system that brought in workers as contractors. .

“They were able to further their own goals very quickly because they were able to hire people with much less scrutiny and a much less rigorous onboarding process than if these people were hired as full-time employees,” he said. “It meant that no one was looking very closely when they brought all these people up from the foothills of the Sierras.”

Mr. Lloyd said that after applying for his job, he interviewed Mr. Pannell twice and had reported directly to Mr. Pannell when he joined a 25-person Bay Area video production team inside from GDS in 2017. He soon noticed that almost half of this team, including Mr. Lubbers and Mr. Pannell, came from Oregon House.

Google paid to install a state-of-the-art sound system in the Oregon House home of a Fellowship member who worked for the team as a sound designer, according to the lawsuit. Mr. Lubbers disputed this claim in a telephone interview, saying that the equipment was old and would have been thrown away if the equipment had not shipped it to the house.

The sound designer’s daughter also worked for the team as a set designer. Additional members of the fellowship and their family members were hired to work at Google events, including a photographer, a masseuse, Mr. Lubber’s wife, and his son, who DJed at company parties.

The company frequently served wine from Grant Marie, a winery at Oregon House run by a Fraternity member who previously managed the Fraternity’s winery, according to the lawsuit and a person familiar with the matter, who declined to be identified out of fear. to retaliation.

“My personal religious beliefs are a deeply held private matter,” Mr. Lubbers said. “In all my years in tech, they have never played a role in hiring. I’ve always played my role by bringing in the right talent for the situation, by bringing in the right vendors for the jobs.”

He said ASG, not Google, hired contractors for the GDS team, adding that it was fine with him to “encourage people to apply for those roles.” And he said that in recent years, the team has grown to more than 250 people, including part-time employees.

Pannell said in a phone interview that the team brought in workers from “a trusted circle of friends and family with extremely qualified backgrounds,” including graduates of the University of California, Berkeley.

In 2017 and 2018, according to the suit, Pannell attended video shoots while intoxicated and would occasionally throw things at the host when he was unhappy with a performance. Mr. Pannell said that he did not recall the incidents and that they did not seem like something he would do. He also acknowledged that he had had problems with alcohol and had sought help.

After seven months at Google, Pannell became a full-time employee, according to the lawsuit. He was later promoted to senior producer and then executive producer, according to his LinkedIn profile, which has also been removed.

Mr Lloyd brought much of this to the attention of a manager within the team, he said. But he was repeatedly told not to pursue the matter because Lubbers was a powerful figure at Google and because Lloyd could lose his job, according to his lawsuit. He said that he was fired in February 2021 and was not given a reason. Google, Lubbers and Pannell said they had fired him for performance issues.

Ms Jones, Mr Lloyd’s lawyer, argued that Google’s relationship with ASG allowed members of the Fraternity to join the company without having been properly vetted. “This is one of the methods the Fraternity used in Kelly’s case,” she said. “They can walk through the door without the normal scrutiny.”

Mr. Lloyd is seeking damages for wrongful termination, retaliation, failure to prevent discrimination, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. But he said he worries that by doing so much business with its members, Google has pumped money into the Fellowship of Friends.

“Once you realize this, you become responsible,” Lloyd said. “You can’t look away.”

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