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How a Religious Sect Landed Google in a Lawsuit


OREGON HOUSE, Calif. — In a tiny city within 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 spiritual sect, which believes the next consciousness could be achieved by embracing positive 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 tasks, the Fellowship’s presence within the enterprise unit was uncommon. As many as 12 Fellowship members and shut family 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 pictures, taking part in music, offering massages and serving wine. For these occasions, Google often 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 concerning the affect of the spiritual 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 means 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 regulation that protects employees towards discrimination. It is within the discovery stage.

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

“We have longstanding worker and provider insurance policies in place to stop discrimination and conflicts of curiosity, and we take these severely,” a Google spokeswoman, Courtenay Mencini, mentioned in an announcement. “It’s towards the regulation to ask for the spiritual affiliations of those that work for us or for our suppliers, however we’ll in fact completely 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 an announcement that his firm believed in “the rules of openness, inclusivity and equality for folks 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 corporation “out there to anybody desirous about 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 sometimes required to offer 10 % of their month-to-month earnings to the group.

Mr. Burton based mostly his teachings on the Fourth Way, a philosophy developed within the early twentieth century by a Greek Armenian thinker and one among his college students. They believed that whereas most individuals moved by means of life in a state of “waking sleep,” the next consciousness was potential. 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 positive 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 the world over, together with greater than $11 million in Chinese antiques.

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

The Fellowship got here below 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 identical 12 months, the Fellowship sold its collection of Chinese antiques at auction. 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 job that’s normally a rung under vice chairman in Google administration and normally receives annual compensation within 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, gained the same 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 big contingent of Fellowship members from the Netherlands who labored for the corporate within the late 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 picture posted to the web by Mr. Pannell’s father exhibits Mr. Lubbers and Mr. Pannell with Mr. Burton, who is named “The Teacher” or “Our Beloved Teacher” inside the Fellowship. A caption on the picture, which was additionally just lately deleted, calls Mr. Pannell a “new pupil.”

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

“They have been in a position to additional their very own goals very quickly as a result of they may rent folks with far much less scrutiny and a far much less rigorous on-boarding course of than if these folks have been introduced on as full-time staff,” he mentioned. “It meant that nobody was trying very intently when all these folks 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 almost 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 within 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 telephone interview, saying the tools 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 family have been employed to employees 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 often 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 an individual acquainted with the matter, who declined to be recognized for concern of reprisal.

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

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

Mr. Pannell mentioned in a telephone interview that the workforce introduced in employees 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 sometimes threw issues on the presenter when he was sad with a efficiency. Mr. Pannell mentioned that he didn’t keep 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 manager contained in the workforce, he mentioned. But he was repeatedly advised to not pursue the matter as a result of Mr. Lubbers was a strong 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 motive. 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 hitch the corporate with out being correctly vetted. “This is likely one of the strategies the Fellowship used within the Kelly case,” she mentioned. “They can get by means of the door with out the conventional scrutiny.”

Mr. Lloyd is in search of damages for wrongful termination, retaliation, failure to stop 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 grow to be conscious of this, you grow to be accountable,” Mr. Lloyd mentioned. “You can’t look away.”

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