How a Religious Sect Landed Google in a Lawsuit

 

OREGON HOUSE, Calif. — In a tiny city in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, a non secular group known as the Fellowship of Friends has established an elaborate, 1,200-acre compound stuffed with artwork and ornate structure.

More than 200 miles away from the Fellowship’s base in Oregon House, Calif., the non secular sect, which believes a larger consciousness will be achieved by embracing advantageous arts and tradition, has additionally gained a foothold inside a enterprise unit at Google.

Even in Google’s freewheeling workplace tradition, which inspires staff to talk their very own minds and pursue their very own initiatives, the Fellowship’s presence in the enterprise unit was uncommon. As many as 12 Fellowship members and shut kinfolk labored for the Google Developer Studio, or GDS, which produces movies showcasing the corporate’s applied sciences, in line with a lawsuit filed by Kevin Lloyd, a 34-year-old former Google video producer.

Many others staffed firm occasions, working registration desks, taking images, enjoying music, offering massages and serving wine. For these occasions, Google commonly purchased wine from an Oregon House vineyard owned by a member of the Fellowship, in line with the lawsuit.

Mr. Lloyd claimed he was fired final 12 months as a result of he complained in regards to the affect of the non secular sect. His swimsuit additionally names Advanced Systems Group, or ASG, the corporate that despatched Mr. Lloyd to Google as a contractor. Most of the Google Developer Studio joined the workforce by way of ASG as contractors, together with many members of the Fellowship.

The swimsuit, which Mr. Lloyd filed in August in California Superior Court, accuses Google and ASG of violating a California employment legislation that protects staff towards discrimination. It is in the invention stage.

The New York Times corroborated most of the lawsuit’s claims by way of interviews with eight present and former staff of the Google enterprise unit and examinations of publicly obtainable info and different paperwork. These included a membership roster for the Fellowship of Friends, Google spreadsheets detailing occasion budgets and photographs taken at these occasions.

“We have longstanding worker and provider insurance policies in place to forestall discrimination and conflicts of curiosity, and we take these critically,” a Google spokeswoman, Courtenay Mencini, mentioned in a assertion. “It’s towards the legislation to ask for the non secular affiliations of those that work for us or for our suppliers, however we’ll after all totally look into these allegations for any irregularities or improper contracting practices. If we discover proof of coverage violations, we’ll take motion.”

Dave Van Hoy, ASG’s president, mentioned in a assertion that his firm believed in “the ideas of openness, inclusivity and equality for individuals of all races, religions, gender identification and above all nondiscrimination.”

“We proceed to disclaim the plaintiff’s baseless allegations and anticipate to vindicate ourselves in courtroom quickly,” he added.

Founded in 1970 by Robert Earl Burton, a former San Francisco Bay Area schoolteacher, the Fellowship of Friends describes itself as a company “obtainable to anybody in pursuing the non secular work of awakening.” It claims 1,500 members throughout the globe, with about 500 to 600 in and round its compound in Oregon House. Members are usually required to present 10 % of their month-to-month earnings to the group.

Mr. Burton based mostly his teachings on the Fourth Way, a philosophy developed in the early twentieth century by a Greek Armenian thinker and one in all his college students. They believed that whereas most individuals moved by way of life in a state of “waking sleep,” a larger consciousness was doable. Drawing on what he described as visits from angelic incarnations of historic figures like Leonardo da Vinci, Johann Sebastian Bach and Walt Whitman, Mr. Burton taught that true consciousness may very well be achieved by embracing the advantageous arts.

Inside the group’s Northern California compound, known as Apollo, the Fellowship staged operas, performs and ballets; ran a critically acclaimed vineyard; and picked up artwork from internationally, together with greater than $11 million in Chinese antiques.

“They imagine that to realize enlightenment you need to encompass your self with so-called larger impressions — what Robert Burton believed to be the best issues in life,” mentioned Jennings Brown, a journalist who just lately produced a podcast in regards to the Fellowship known as “Revelations.” Mr. Burton described Apollo because the seed of a new civilization that might emerge after a international apocalypse.

The Fellowship got here underneath hearth in 1984 when a former member filed a $2.75 million lawsuit claiming that younger males who joined the group “had been forcefully and unlawfully sexually seduced by Burton.” In 1996, one other former member filed a swimsuit that accused Mr. Burton of sexual misconduct with him whereas he was minor. Both fits have been settled out of courtroom.

The similar 12 months, the Fellowship bought its assortment of Chinese antiques at public sale. In 2015, after its chief winemaker left the group, its vineyard ceased production. The Fellowship’s president, Greg Holman, declined to remark for this text.

The Google Developer Studio is run by Peter Lubbers, a longtime member of the Fellowship of Friends. A July 2019 Fellowship listing, obtained by The Times, lists him as a member. Former members affirm that he joined the Fellowship after shifting to the United States from the Netherlands.

At Google, he’s a director, a position that’s often a rung beneath vice chairman in Google administration and often receives annual compensation in the excessive six figures or low seven figures.

Previously, Mr. Lubbers labored for the staffing firm Kelly Services. M. Catherine Jones, Mr. Lloyd’s lawyer, received a related swimsuit towards Kelly Services in 2008 on behalf of Lynn Noyes, who claimed that the corporate had failed to advertise her as a result of she was not a member of the Fellowship. A California courtroom awarded Ms. Noyes $6.5 million in damages.

Ms. Noyes mentioned in an interview that Mr. Lubbers was amongst a giant contingent of Fellowship members from the Netherlands who labored for the corporate in the late Nineteen Nineties and early 2000s.

At Kelly Services, Mr. Lubbers labored as a software program developer earlier than a stint at Oracle, the Silicon Valley software program large, in line with his LinkedIn profile, which was just lately deleted. He joined Google in 2012, initially engaged on a workforce that promoted Google expertise to exterior software program builders. In 2014, he helped create G.D.S., which produced movies selling Google developer instruments.

Kelly Services declined to touch upon the lawsuit.

Under Mr. Lubbers, the group introduced in a number of different members of the Fellowship, together with a video producer named Gabe Pannell. A 2015 photo posted to the web by Mr. Pannell’s father exhibits Mr. Lubbers and Mr. Pannell with Mr. Burton, who is called “The Teacher” or “Our Beloved Teacher” inside the Fellowship. A caption on the photograph, which was additionally just lately deleted, calls Mr. Pannell a “new scholar.”

Echoing claims made in the lawsuit, Erik Johansen, a senior video producer who has labored for the Google Developer Studio since 2015 by way of ASG, mentioned the workforce’s management abused the hiring system that introduced staff in as contractors.

“They have been capable of additional their very own goals very quickly as a result of they might rent individuals with far much less scrutiny and a far much less rigorous on-boarding course of than if these individuals have been introduced on as full-time staff,” he mentioned. “It meant that nobody was wanting very intently when all these individuals have been introduced on from the foothills of the Sierras.”

Mr. Lloyd mentioned that after making use of for his job he had interviewed with Mr. Pannell twice, and that he had reported on to Mr. Pannell when he joined a 25-person Bay Area video manufacturing workforce inside GDS in 2017. He quickly seen that just about half this workforce, together with Mr. Lubbers and Mr. Pannell, got here from Oregon House.

Google paid to have a state-of-the-art sound system put in in the Oregon House residence of 1 Fellowship member who labored for the workforce as a sound designer, in line with the swimsuit. Mr. Lubbers disputed this declare in a cellphone interview, saying the gear was previous and would have been thrown out if the workforce had not despatched it to the house.

The sound designer’s daughter additionally labored for the workforce as a set designer. Additional Fellowship members and their kinfolk have been employed to workers Google occasions, together with a photographer, a masseuse, Mr. Lubbers’s spouse and his son, who labored as a DJ at firm events.

The firm steadily served wine from Grant Marie, a vineyard in Oregon House run by a Fellowship member who beforehand managed the Fellowship’s vineyard, in line with the swimsuit and a particular person aware of the matter, who declined to be recognized for worry of reprisal.

“My private non secular beliefs are a deeply held personal matter,” Mr. Lubbers mentioned. “In all my years in tech, they’ve by no means performed a position in hiring. I’ve at all times carried out my position by bringing in the correct expertise for the state of affairs — bringing in the correct distributors for the roles.”

He mentioned ASG, not Google, employed contractors for the GDS workforce, including that it was advantageous for him to “encourage individuals to use for these roles.” And he mentioned that in latest years, the workforce has grown to greater than 250 individuals, together with part-time staff.

Mr. Pannell mentioned in a cellphone interview that the workforce introduced in staff from “a circle of trusted mates and households with extraordinarily certified backgrounds,” together with graduates of the University of California, Berkeley.

In 2017 and 2018, in line with the swimsuit, Mr. Pannell attended video shoots intoxicated and infrequently threw issues on the presenter when he was sad with a efficiency. Mr. Pannell mentioned that he didn’t bear in mind the incidents and that they didn’t sound like one thing he would do. He additionally acknowledged that he’d had issues with alcohol and had sought assist.

After seven months at Google, Mr. Pannell was made a full-time worker, in line with the swimsuit. He was later promoted to senior producer after which govt producer, in line with his LinkedIn profile, which has additionally been deleted.

Mr. Lloyd introduced a lot of this to the eye of a supervisor contained in the workforce, he mentioned. But he was repeatedly instructed to not pursue the matter as a result of Mr. Lubbers was a highly effective determine at Google and since Mr. Lloyd might lose his job, in line with his lawsuit. He mentioned he was fired in February 2021 and was not given a purpose. Google, Mr. Lubbers and Mr. Pannell mentioned he had been fired for efficiency points.

Ms. Jones, Mr. Lloyd’s lawyer, argued that Google’s relationship with ASG allowed members of the Fellowship to affix the corporate with out being correctly vetted. “This is likely one of the strategies the Fellowship used in the Kelly case,” she mentioned. “They can get by way of the door with out the traditional scrutiny.”

Mr. Lloyd is searching for damages for wrongful termination, retaliation, failure to forestall discrimination and the intentional infliction of emotion misery. But he mentioned he worries that, by doing a lot enterprise with its members, Google fed cash into the Fellowship of Friends.

“Once you develop into conscious of this, you develop into accountable,” Mr. Lloyd mentioned. “You can’t look away.”


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