How the religious sect brought Google to court

OREGON HOUSE, California – In a small town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, a religious organization called the Friendship of Friends has established a sophisticated, 1,200-acre site full of art and ornate architecture.

200 miles from the scholarship base in Oregon House, California, a religious sect that believes that higher awareness can be achieved through the fine arts and culture has also gained a foothold in Google’s business unit.

Even in the culture of Google’s free office, which encourages employees to speak their minds and carry out their own projects, the presence of a scholarship in the business department was unusual. About 12 Fellowship members and close relatives worked at Google Developer Studio, or GDS, which produces videos to demonstrate the company’s technology, according to a lawsuit filed by Kevin Lloyd, a 34-year-old former Google video producer.

Many others were staffed by company events, worked at registration desks, took photos, played music, had massages, and drank wine. For these events, according to the lawsuit, Google regularly purchased wine from the Oregon House Winery, which is owned by a Fellowship member.

Mr Lloyd said he was released last year because he complained about the influence of a 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 members of the Fellowship.

A lawsuit filed by Mr. Lloyd in the California Supreme Court in August accuses Google and ASG of violating California Employment Law, which protects workers from discrimination. Is in the discovery stage.

The New York Times has confirmed numerous claims in the lawsuit by interviewing eight current and former employees of Google’s business and checking publicly available information and other documents. This included a list of Friends Scholarship Members, Google Spreadsheets detailing event budgets, and photos taken at those events.

“We have a long-standing policy of employees and suppliers to avoid discrimination and conflict of interest, and we take this seriously,” said Google spokeswoman Cortenay Menchini. “It is against the law to claim the religious affiliation of the people who work with us or our suppliers, but we will, of course, thoroughly review these allegations because of any breaches or improper contract practices. “If we find evidence of a policy breach, we will act.”

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

“We continue to deny the plaintiff’s baseless allegations and expect to be acquitted in court soon,” he added.

Founded in 1970 by Robert Earl Burton, a former San Francisco Bay School teacher, the Friends Scholarship describes itself as an organization “accessible to anyone interested in the spiritual work of awakening.” It has over 1,500 members worldwide, from about 500 to 600 in and around Oregon House. Members are typically required to donate 10 percent of their monthly income to the organization.

Mr. Barton based his teaching on the fourth way, philosophy, which was developed by a Greek-Armenian philosopher and one of his students in the early 20th century. They believed that a higher level of consciousness was possible when most people continued to live in a state of “awake sleep.” Mr. Burton taught that true consciousness can be attained through the making of fine arts, based on the visits of angelic incarnations of historical figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Walt Whitman.

Inside the organization’s Northern California building, called Apollo, the Society staged operas, plays, and ballets; Ran a critically acclaimed winery; And collected art from around the world, including more than $ 11 million worth of Chinese antiques.

“They believe that in order to be enlightened, you have to enter with the so-called higher impressions – which Robert Burton thought was the best thing in life,” said Jennings Brown, a journalist who recently wrote a scholarship podcast called Revelations. Mr. Burton described Apollo as the seed of a new civilization that would emerge after the global apocalypse.

The scholarship was criticized in 1984 when a former member filed a $ 2.75 million lawsuit alleging that young men who joined the organization were “forcibly and illegally seduced by a sexual Barton.” In 1996, another former member filed a lawsuit accusing Mr. Burton of sexually harassing him when he was a minor. Both lawsuits were settled out of court.

The same year the scholarship sold a collection of Chinese antiques at auction. In 2015, after his chief winemaker left the organization, his winery ceased production. Scholarship President Greg Holman declined to comment for this article.

Google Developer Studio is run by Peter Lubers, a longtime member of the Friends Association. In the July 2019 Scholarship Directory obtained by The Times, he was named a member. Former members confirm that he joined the scholarship after moving from the Netherlands to the United States.

At Google he is a director, a position that is typically lower than that of vice president of management at Google and usually receives annual compensation in the six digits or as low as seven digits.

Prior to that, Mr. Lubbers worked for the personnel company Kelly Services. M. Catherine Jones, Mr. Lloyd’s attorney, won a similar lawsuit against Kelly Services in 2008 on behalf of Lynn Noes, who argued that the company was unable to promote her because she was not a member of the scholarship. A California court has fined Ms. Noah $ 6.5 million in damages.

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

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

Kelly Services declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The group, led by Mr. Lubers, brought in several other members of the fellowship, including a video producer named Gaby Panel. A 2015 photo posted online by Mr. Panel’s father shows Mr. Lubers and Mr. Panel with Mr. Burton, known as the “Teacher” or “Our Favorite Teacher” in the fellowship. The caption on the photo, which was also recently deleted, calls Mr. Panel a “new student.”

Responding to the claims in the lawsuit, Eric Johansen, chief video producer who worked at Google Developer Studio through ASG since 2015, said team leaders abused a hiring system that hired workers as contractors.

“They were able to achieve their goals very quickly because they could hire people with much less control and a much less rigorous on-board process than these people would be full-time,” he said. “It meant no one was watching when all these people were brought down from the foothills of the Sierra.”

Mr Lloyd said he had been interviewed twice by Mr Panel since applying for the job and that he spoke directly to Mr Panel when he joined a 25-member Bay Area video production team at GDS in 2017. He soon noticed that almost half of this team, including Mr. Lubers and Mr. Panel, had come from an Oregon home.

Google paid to install the latest sound system in an Oregon home, the home of a Fellowship member who worked as a sound designer on the team, according to the lawsuit. Mr Lubbers denied the allegations in a telephone interview, saying the equipment was old and would be thrown away if the team did not send it home.

The daughter of a sound designer also worked as a decorator on the team. Additional Fellowship members and their relatives were hired at Google events, including a photographer, masseuse, Mr. Luber’s wife, and his son, who worked as DJs at company parties.

The company has often served wine from Grant Marie, a winery at Oregon House run by a Fellowship member who previously ran the scholarship winery, according to a lawsuit and a knowledgeable person who refused to identify for fear of retaliation.

“My personal religious beliefs are a deeply protected personal issue,” said Mr. Lubbers. “During all my years of working in technology, they have never played any role in hiring. I have always fulfilled my role by bringing out the right talent for the situation – bringing in the right traders for the job. ”

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

Mr. Panel said in a telephone interview that the team brought in workers from “a circle of trusted friends and families with highly qualified experience,” including University of California alumni Berkeley.

In 2017 and 2018, according to the lawsuit, Mr. Panel attended video shoots while intoxicated and sometimes threw things at the presenter when he was unhappy with the performance. Mr. Panel said he did not remember the incidents and that they did not sound like anything he would do. He also admitted to having problems with alcohol and asked for help.

Seven months after Google, according to the lawsuit, Mr. Panel was hired full-time. He was later promoted to Senior Producer and then Executive Producer, according to his LinkedIn profile, which was also deleted.

Mr. Lloyd has drawn the attention of many team managers to this, he said. But he was repeatedly told not to pursue the matter because Mr. Lubbers was a strong figure in Google and because Mr. Lloyd could have lost his job, according to his lawsuit. He said he was fired in February 2021 and gave no reason. Google, Mr. Lubers and Mr. Panel said he was fired because of work problems.

Ms. Jones, Mr. Lloyd’s attorney, argued that Google’s relationship with ASG allowed Fellowship members to join the company without proper scrutiny. “This is one of the methods used by the scholarship in Kelly’s case,” he said. “They can go through the door without a normal check.”

Mr Lloyd is seeking damages for wrongful termination, retaliation, avoidance of discrimination and intentional infliction of emotional stress. But he said he was concerned that by doing so much business with its members, Google had raised money for a fellowship scholarship.

“As you know it, you become responsible,” said Mr. Lloyd. “You can not ignore it.”

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