How a Religious Sect Landed Google in a Lawsuit

OREGON HOUSE, Calif. — In a tiny city within the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, a spiritual group referred to as the Fellowship of Pals has established an elaborate, 1,200-acre compound filled with artwork and ornate structure.

Greater than 200 miles away from the Fellowship’s base in Oregon Home, Calif., the spiritual sect, which believes the next consciousness will be achieved by embracing superb arts and tradition, has additionally gained a foothold inside a enterprise unit at Google.

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

Many others staffed firm occasions, working registration desks, taking images, taking part in music, offering massages and serving wine. For these occasions, Google frequently purchased wine from an Oregon Home vineyard owned by a member of the Fellowship, in response to the lawsuit.

Mr. Lloyd claimed he was fired final yr as a result of he complained concerning the affect of the spiritual sect. His go well with additionally names Superior Techniques Group, or ASG, the corporate that despatched Mr. Lloyd to Google as a contractor. Many of the Google Developer Studio joined the staff by ASG as contractors, together with many members of the Fellowship.

The go well with, which Mr. Lloyd filed in August in California Superior Courtroom, accuses Google and ASG of violating a California employment regulation that protects staff in opposition to discrimination. It’s within the discovery stage.

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

“We now have longstanding worker and provider insurance policies in place to forestall discrimination and conflicts of curiosity, and we take these significantly,” a Google spokeswoman, Courtenay Mencini, mentioned in a press release. “It’s in opposition to 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 a press release 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 count on to vindicate ourselves in court docket quickly,” he added.

Based in 1970 by Robert Earl Burton, a former San Francisco Bay Space schoolteacher, the Fellowship of Pals describes itself as a company “obtainable to anybody thinking 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 Home. Members are usually required to present 10 p.c of their month-to-month earnings to the group.

Mr. Burton primarily based his teachings on the Fourth Approach, a philosophy developed within the early twentieth century by a Greek Armenian thinker and one in every of his college students. They believed that whereas most individuals moved by life in a state of “waking sleep,” the next consciousness was attainable. 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 superb arts.

Contained in the group’s Northern California compound, referred to 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 language antiques.

“They consider that to attain enlightenment it’s best 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 not too long ago produced a podcast concerning the Fellowship referred to 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 underneath fireplace 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 go well with that accused Mr. Burton of sexual misconduct with him whereas he was minor. Each fits had been settled out of court docket.

The identical yr, the Fellowship bought its assortment of Chinese language antiques at public sale. In 2015, after its chief winemaker left the group, its vineyard ceased manufacturing. 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 Pals. A July 2019 Fellowship listing, obtained by The Instances, lists him as a member. Former members verify that he joined the Fellowship after transferring to the USA from the Netherlands.

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

Beforehand, Mr. Lubbers labored for the staffing firm Kelly Providers. M. Catherine Jones, Mr. Lloyd’s lawyer, received an identical go well with in opposition to Kelly Providers 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 court docket 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 Nineteen Nineties and early 2000s.

At Kelly Providers, Mr. Lubbers labored as a software program developer earlier than a stint at Oracle, the Silicon Valley software program large, in response to his LinkedIn profile, which was not too long ago deleted. He joined Google in 2012, initially engaged on a staff 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 Providers declined to touch upon the lawsuit.

Underneath 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 reveals Mr. Lubbers and Mr. Pannell with Mr. Burton, who is called “The Instructor” or “Our Beloved Instructor” inside the Fellowship. A caption on the picture, which was additionally not too long ago deleted, calls Mr. Pannell a “new scholar.”

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

“They had been capable of additional their very own goals very quickly as a result of they may rent individuals with far much less scrutiny and a far much less rigorous on-boarding course of than if these individuals had been introduced on as full-time workers,” he mentioned. “It meant that nobody was trying very carefully when all these individuals had 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 Space video manufacturing staff inside GDS in 2017. He quickly seen that just about half this staff, together with Mr. Lubbers and Mr. Pannell, got here from Oregon Home.

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

The sound designer’s daughter additionally labored for the staff as a set designer. Further Fellowship members and their kin had been employed to employees Google occasions, together with a photographer, a masseuse, Mr. Lubber’s spouse and his son, who labored as a DJ at firm events.

The corporate steadily served wine from Grant Marie, a vineyard in Oregon Home run by a Fellowship member who beforehand managed the Fellowship’s vineyard, in response to the go well with and an individual accustomed to 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 position by bringing in the precise expertise for the state of affairs — bringing in the precise distributors for the roles.”

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

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

In 2017 and 2018, in response to the go well with, 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 response to the go well with. He was later promoted to senior producer after which government producer, in response to his LinkedIn profile, which has additionally been deleted.

Mr. Lloyd introduced a lot of this to the eye of a supervisor contained in the staff, he mentioned. However he was repeatedly instructed 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 response to his lawsuit. He mentioned he was fired in February 2021 and was not given a cause. 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 among the strategies the Fellowship used within the Kelly case,” she mentioned. “They’ll get by the door with out the traditional scrutiny.”

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

“When you change into conscious of this, you change into accountable,” Mr. Lloyd mentioned. “You possibly can’t look away.”