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How a Spiritual 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 Associates has established an elaborate, 1,200-acre compound stuffed with artwork and ornate structure.

Greater than 200 miles away from the Fellowship’s base in Oregon Home, Calif., the non secular sect, which believes a better consciousness may be achieved by embracing wonderful 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 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 keeping with 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 commonly purchased wine from an Oregon Home vineyard owned by a member of the Fellowship, in keeping with the lawsuit.

Mr. Lloyd claimed he was fired final yr as a result of he complained concerning the affect of the non secular sect. His swimsuit additionally names Superior Methods Group, or ASG, the corporate that despatched Mr. Lloyd to Google as a contractor. A lot of the Google Developer Studio joined the group by ASG as contractors, together with many members of the Fellowship.

The swimsuit, which Mr. Lloyd filed in August in California Superior Courtroom, accuses Google and ASG of violating a California employment regulation that protects employees towards discrimination. It’s within the discovery stage.

The New York Occasions corroborated lots of the lawsuit’s claims by 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 Associates, Google spreadsheets detailing occasion budgets and photographs taken at these occasions.

“We’ve got 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, stated in an announcement. “It’s towards the regulation to ask for the non secular affiliations of those that work for us or for our suppliers, however we’ll in fact totally look into these allegations for any irregularities or improper contracting practices. If we discover proof of coverage violations, we are going to take motion.”

Dave Van Hoy, ASG’s president, stated in an announcement that his firm believed in “the ideas 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 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 Associates describes itself as a company “out there to anybody all in favour of 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 provide 10 % of their month-to-month earnings to the group.

Mr. Burton primarily based his teachings on the Fourth Method, a philosophy developed within the early twentieth century by a Greek Armenian thinker and considered one of his college students. They believed that whereas most individuals moved by life in a state of “waking sleep,” a better consciousness was doable. 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 might be achieved by embracing the wonderful 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 realize enlightenment you must encompass your self with so-called larger impressions — what Robert Burton believed to be the best issues in life,” stated Jennings Brown, a journalist who just lately produced a podcast concerning the Fellowship referred to as “Revelations.” Mr. Burton described Apollo because the seed of a brand new civilization that will emerge after a world apocalypse.

The Fellowship got here beneath 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. Each fits had been settled out of court docket.

The identical yr, the Fellowship offered 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 Associates. A July 2019 Fellowship listing, obtained by The Occasions, lists him as a member. Former members verify that he joined the Fellowship after shifting to the USA from the Netherlands.

At Google, he’s a director, a task that’s often a rung under vp 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 Companies. M. Catherine Jones, Mr. Lloyd’s lawyer, gained an analogous swimsuit towards Kelly Companies 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 stated 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 Companies, Mr. Lubbers labored as a software program developer earlier than a stint at Oracle, the Silicon Valley software program large, in keeping with his LinkedIn profile, which was just lately deleted. He joined Google in 2012, initially engaged on a group 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 Companies declined to touch upon the lawsuit.

Below Mr. Lubbers, the group introduced in a number of different members of the Fellowship, together with a video producer named Gabe Pannell. A 2015 photograph posted to the web by Mr. Pannell’s father reveals Mr. Lubbers and Mr. Pannell with Mr. Burton, who is called “The Trainer” or “Our Beloved Trainer” throughout the Fellowship. A caption on the photograph, 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 ASG, stated the group’s management abused the hiring system that introduced employees in as contractors.

“They had been capable of 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 had been introduced on as full-time staff,” he stated. “It meant that nobody was wanting very carefully when all these folks had been introduced on from the foothills of the Sierras.”

Mr. Lloyd stated 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 group inside GDS in 2017. He quickly seen that just about half this group, 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 dwelling of 1 Fellowship member who labored for the group as a sound designer, in keeping with the swimsuit. Mr. Lubbers disputed this declare in a cellphone interview, saying the tools was outdated and would have been thrown out if the group had not despatched it to the house.

The sound designer’s daughter additionally labored for the group as a set designer. Further Fellowship members and their kin had 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 corporate continuously served wine from Grant Marie, a vineyard in Oregon Home run by a Fellowship member who beforehand managed the Fellowship’s vineyard, in keeping with the swimsuit and an individual accustomed to the matter, who declined to be recognized for worry of reprisal.

“My private non secular beliefs are a deeply held non-public matter,” Mr. Lubbers stated. “In all my years in tech, they’ve by no means performed a task in hiring. I’ve at all times carried out my function by bringing in the fitting expertise for the scenario — bringing in the fitting distributors for the roles.”

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

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

In 2017 and 2018, in keeping 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 stated 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 keeping with the swimsuit. He was later promoted to senior producer after which govt producer, in keeping with his LinkedIn profile, which has additionally been deleted.

Mr. Lloyd introduced a lot of this to the eye of a supervisor contained in the group, he stated. However he was repeatedly advised to not pursue the matter as a result of Mr. Lubbers was a robust determine at Google and since Mr. Lloyd might lose his job, in keeping with his lawsuit. He stated he was fired in February 2021 and was not given a cause. Google, Mr. Lubbers and Mr. Pannell stated 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 affix the corporate with out being correctly vetted. “This is among the strategies the Fellowship used within the Kelly case,” she stated. “They’ll get by the door with out the traditional scrutiny.”

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

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

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