U.S. District Judge William Alsup has delayed the start of Waymo's civil lawsuit against ride-sharing company Uber after revealing that U.S. Department of Justice lawyers provided evidence he said showed that Uber and its lawyers had engaged in an elaborate cover up of trade-secret theft activities.
Waymo's parent company Alphabet was preparing to go to trial in a civil suit that charged Uber had benefitted from the theft of trade secrets from Waymo's self-driving car research.
By providing the evidence, the Justice Department also revealed that the department is conducting a criminal investigation of Uber and its management. Further testimony about the new evidence also revealed that former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was also involved in the activities described.
The evidence is a 37-page letter written by a former Uber security executive Richard Jacobs to Uber’s general counsel after he was fired. The letter detailed a list of practices engaged in by Uber specifically to steal trade secrets from competitors.
The unit apparently communicated within itself and with the other executives at Uber using the Wickr app, an encrypted, self-erasing communications service based on servers that were not attributable to Uber.
In the letter, Jacobs detailed how the Uber trade secrets unit included a manager who would seek out and hire employees from other companies working on self-driving cars as a way to obtain the trade secrets they knew. The anonymous servers, the encrypted communications and the automatic deletion were all practices explicitly put into place to avoid Uber’s records from being revealed during legal actions, Jacobs said.
Uber’s in-house attorney, Angela Pedilla, admitted to the judge that she had decided that the letter from Jacobs wasn’t relevant and that she’d withheld the letter when records were demanded by the court during the discovery process. At that point the judge reportedly called her decision “inexplicable” and remarked that he can no longer trust the lawyers for Uber.
At this point, the Jacobs letter is being held under seal, but Judge Alsup has given the DOJ prosecutors until 5:00 PST November 29 to file any objections, or he plans to make the entire letter public.
Meanwhile, the existence of the letter, in addition to the existence of the cover-up, has caused the judge to decide that he couldn’t make Waymo conduct its part of the trial when all of the evidence hadn’t been revealed. So he continued the case while he and Waymo investigate. He has not set a date to resume the trial.
If the evidence is proved in court it will make it extremely difficult for Uber to win the case. The judge has already told Uber that he will tell the jury about the cover-up and while Uber is claiming that the information in the letter isn’t accurate, the judge clearly isn’t buying it.
The alleged actions by Uber to obtain trade secrets appear to be part of an institutionalized practice of hiding the truth, of working to compete unfairly and to prevent law enforcement and other legal authorities from finding out about those practices.
Some of those practices included an effort to track the drivers of the Lyft ride-sharing service, which is Uber’s primary competitor and offer them bribes to leave Lyft. Uber reportedly developed a program it named Hell to derail Lyft operations where it could. That effort is reportedly also being investigated by the FBI.