How a religious sect got Google into a lawsuit

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

More than 200 miles from Fellowship’s campus in Oregon House, California, the religious denomination that believes higher consciousness can be achieved by receiving the arts and culture, has also gained a foothold in a business unit. at Google.

Even in Google’s freelance culture, which encourages employees to speak their minds and pursue their own projects, the presence of a Fellowship in the business unit is unusual. According to the lawsuit filed by Kevin Lloyd, 34, a former Google video producer, up to 12 members of the Fellowship and close relatives worked for the Google Developer Studio, or GDS.

Many others have staff staffed to cater corporate events, register desks, take pictures, play music, provide massages, and serve wine. For these events, Google regularly purchases alcohol from an Oregon House winery owned by a member of the Fellowship, according to the lawsuit.

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

The lawsuit, which Mr. Lloyd filed in August in California Superior Court, accuses Google and ASG of violating California employment laws that protect workers against discrimination. It is in the discovery phase.

The New York Times corroborated many of the lawsuit’s claims through interviews with eight current and former employees of the Google business unit as well as examining public information and other documents. These include membership lists for the Buddies, Google spreadsheets detailing event budgets, and photos taken at these events.

Google spokesperson Courtenay Mencini said: “We have long established employee and supplier policies to prevent discrimination and conflicts of interest, and we take these seriously. that”. “It is against the law to ask for the religious beliefs of people who work for us or for our suppliers, but of course we will scrutinize these allegations to find any inconsistencies. irregularities or improper contractual practices. If we find evidence of policy violations, we take action.”

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

“We continue to deny the baseless allegations of the plaintiff and look forward to being cleared in court soon,” he added.

Founded in 1970 by Robert Earl Burton, a former San Francisco Bay Area school teacher, Fellowship of Friends describes itself as an organization “for anyone interested in pursuing spiritual awakening work. “. It claims to have 1,500 members globally, with between 500 and 600 in and around its home in Oregon House. Members are usually required to give 10 percent of their monthly income 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 believe that while most people go through life in a “sleep-awake” state, the possibility of consciousness is higher. Drawing on what he described as angelic visits by historical figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Johann Sebastian Bach and Walt Whitman, Mr. Burton taught that true consciousness can be achieved by embracing art art.

Inside the organization’s Northern California complex, known as Apollo, Fellowship staged musicals, plays, and ballets; run a highly appreciated winery; and collects art from around the world, including over $11 million in Chinese antiques.

Jennings Brown, a journalist who recently produced a podcast about Fellowship called “Disclosure. “Mr. Burton describes Apollo as the germ of a new civilization that will emerge after the global apocalypse.

Fellowship was started in 1984 when a former member filed a $2.75 million lawsuit alleging that young men joining the organization “were coerced into sex by Burton and illegal”. 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.

In the same year, Scholarship sell his collection of Chinese antiques at auction. In 2015, after its primary wine producer left the organization, its winery stop production. Fellowship’s president, Greg Holman, declined to comment for this article.

The Google Developer Studio is run by Peter Lubbers, a longtime Fellow of the Fellowship of Friends. A July 2019 scholarship directory, collected by The Times, lists him as a member. Former members confirm that he joined the Fellowship after moving to the USA from the Netherlands.

At Google, he’s a director, a role typically lower than vice president in Google’s management, and typically receives an annual compensation of either the high six-figure or the low seven-figure.

Previously, Mr. Lubbers worked for the staffing company Kelly Services. M. Catherine Jones, Mr. Lloyd’s attorney, won a similar case against Kelly Services in 2008 on behalf of Lynn Noyes, who argued the company failed to promote her because she was not a member of the company. Fellowship. A California court awarded Noyes $6.5 million in punitive damages.

Ms. Noyes said in an interview that Mr. Lubbers was one of a large number of Fellows 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, which, according to his LinkedIn profile, was recently deleted. . He joined Google in 2012, initially working on the team promoting Google’s technology to outside software developers. In 2014, he helped create GDS, which produces videos promoting Google’s developer tools.

Kelly Services declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Under Mr. Lubbers’ leadership, the group attracted several other members of the Fellowship, including a video producer named Gabe Pannell. One Photo 2015 posted to the internet by Mr Pannell’s father showing Mr Lubbers and Mr Pannell with Mr Burton, who is referred to as “The Teacher” or “Our Beloved Teacher” in the Scholarship. The caption on the photo, which was also recently deleted, called Mr Pannell a “new student”.

Making a statement in the lawsuit, Erik Johansen, a senior video producer who has worked for Google Developer Studio since 2015 through ASG, said the group’s leadership abused the recruitment system that brought in workers. as a contractor.

“They can get on with their goals very quickly because they can hire people with less supervision and the boarding process is much less rigorous than if these people were brought in,” he said. official member,” he said. “That means no one was watching closely when all these people were brought in from the foothills of the Sierras.”

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

Google paid to install a state-of-the-art sound system in the Oregon House of a Fellowship member who worked for the group as a sound designer, according to the lawsuit. Mr. Lubbers countered this claim in a phone interview, saying the device was old and would be thrown away if the team didn’t send it to the house.

The sound designer’s daughter also works for the team as a set designer. Other members of the Fellowship and their relatives have been hired to staff Google events, including a photographer, a masseuse, Mr. Lubber’s wife and his son, DJs at company parties.

According to the lawsuit, the company regularly serves alcohol from Grant Marie, an Oregon House winery run by a Fellow of the Fellowship who previously managed the Fellowship’s winery and a person familiar with the matter. This person declined to be identified for fear of reprisal.

“My personal religious beliefs are a private matter,” said Mr. Lubbers. “In all the years I’ve worked in tech, they’ve never played a recruiting role. I always fulfill my role by bringing in the right talent for the right situation – bringing the right vendors for the job. ”

He said ASG, not Google, has hired contractors for the GDS team, adding that it’s a good thing he “encourages people to apply for those roles.” And he says that in recent years, the team has grown to more than 250 people, including part-time employees.

Mr. Pannell said in a phone interview that the group drew workers from “a trusted group of friends and family with extremely qualified backgrounds”, including well-educated students. from the University of California, Berkeley.

In 2017 and 2018, according to the lawsuit, Mr. Pannell binge-watched video sessions and occasionally threw things at the presenter when he was unsatisfied with a performance. Mr. Pannell said he didn’t remember the incidents and they didn’t sound like he would. He also admitted that he had a problem with alcohol and sought help.

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

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

Ms. Jones, Mr. Lloyd’s attorney, argued that Google’s relationship with ASG allowed Fellowship members to join the company without being thoroughly vetted. “This is one of the methods Fellowship used in the Kelly case,” she said. “They can go through the door without normal supervision.”

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 too much business with its members, Google is pouring money into Fellowship of Friends.

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

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