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How a Religious Sect Landed Google in a Lawsuit


OREGON HOUSE, Calif. — In a tiny town within the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, a spiritual organization called the Fellowship of Friends has established an elaborate, 1,200-acre compound filled with art and ornate architecture.

Greater than 200 miles away from the Fellowship’s base in Oregon House, Calif., the religious sect, which believes the next consciousness will be achieved by embracing positive arts and culture, has also gained a foothold inside a business unit at Google.

Even in Google’s freewheeling office culture, which inspires employees to talk their very own minds and pursue their very own projects, the Fellowship’s presence within the business unit was unusual. As many as 12 Fellowship members and shut relatives worked for the Google Developer Studio, or GDS, which produces videos showcasing the corporate’s technologies, in keeping with a lawsuit filed by Kevin Lloyd, a 34-year-old former Google video producer.

Many others staffed company events, working registration desks, taking photographs, playing music, providing massages and serving wine. For these events, Google repeatedly bought wine from an Oregon House winery owned by a member of the Fellowship, in keeping with the lawsuit.

Mr. Lloyd claimed he was fired last yr because he complained in regards to the influence of the religious sect. His suit also names Advanced Systems Group, or ASG, the corporate that sent Mr. Lloyd to Google as a contractor. A lot of the Google Developer Studio joined the team through ASG as contractors, including many members of the Fellowship.

The suit, which Mr. Lloyd filed in August in California Superior Court, accuses Google and ASG of violating a California employment law that protects employees against discrimination. It’s in the invention stage.

The Latest York Times corroborated lots of the lawsuit’s claims through interviews with eight current and former employees of the Google business unit and examinations of publicly available information and other documents. These included a membership roster for the Fellowship of Friends, Google spreadsheets detailing event budgets and photos taken at these events.

“We have now longstanding worker and supplier policies in place to stop discrimination and conflicts of interest, and we take those seriously,” a Google spokeswoman, Courtenay Mencini, said in a press release. “It’s against the law to ask for the religious affiliations of those that work for us or for our suppliers, but we’ll in fact thoroughly look into these allegations for any irregularities or improper contracting practices. If we discover evidence of policy violations, we are going to take motion.”

Dave Van Hoy, ASG’s president, said in a press release that his company believed in “the principles of openness, inclusivity and equality for people of all races, religions, gender identification and above all nondiscrimination.”

“We proceed to disclaim the plaintiff’s baseless allegations and expect to vindicate ourselves in court soon,” 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 “available to anyone fascinated with pursuing the spiritual work of awakening.” It claims 1,500 members across the globe, with about 500 to 600 in and around its compound in Oregon House. Members are typically required to provide 10 percent of their monthly earnings to the organization.

Mr. Burton based his teachings on the Fourth Way, a philosophy developed within the early twentieth century by a Greek Armenian philosopher and certainly one of his students. They believed that while most individuals moved through life in a state of “waking sleep,” the next consciousness was possible. Drawing on what he described as visits from angelic incarnations of historical 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.

Contained in the organization’s Northern California compound, called Apollo, the Fellowship staged operas, plays and ballets; ran a critically acclaimed winery; and picked up art from the world over, including greater than $11 million in Chinese antiques.

“They imagine that to attain enlightenment you must surround yourself with so-called higher impressions — what Robert Burton believed to be the best things in life,” said Jennings Brown, a journalist who recently produced a podcast in regards to the Fellowship called “Revelations.” Mr. Burton described Apollo because the seed of a latest civilization that may emerge after a world apocalypse.

The Fellowship got here under fire in 1984 when a former member filed a $2.75 million lawsuit claiming that young men who joined the organization “had been forcefully and unlawfully sexually seduced by Burton.” In 1996, one other former member filed a suit that accused Mr. Burton of sexual misconduct with him while he was minor. Each suits were settled out of court.

The identical yr, the Fellowship sold its collection of Chinese antiques at auction. In 2015, after its chief winemaker left the organization, its winery ceased production. The Fellowship’s president, Greg Holman, declined to comment for this text.

The Google Developer Studio is run by Peter Lubbers, a longtime member of the Fellowship of Friends. A July 2019 Fellowship directory, obtained by The Times, lists him as a member. Former members confirm that he joined the Fellowship after moving to the USA from the Netherlands.

At Google, he’s a director, a job that is generally a rung below vice chairman in Google management and typically receives annual compensation within the high six figures or low seven figures.

Previously, Mr. Lubbers worked for the staffing company Kelly Services. M. Catherine Jones, Mr. Lloyd’s lawyer, won an analogous suit against Kelly Services in 2008 on behalf of Lynn Noyes, who claimed that the corporate had didn’t promote her because she was not a member of the Fellowship. A California court awarded Ms. Noyes $6.5 million in damages.

Ms. Noyes said in an interview that Mr. Lubbers was amongst a big contingent of Fellowship members from the Netherlands who worked for the corporate within the late Nineties and early 2000s.

At Kelly Services, Mr. Lubbers worked as a software developer before a stint at Oracle, the Silicon Valley software giant, in keeping with his LinkedIn profile, which was recently deleted. He joined Google in 2012, initially working on a team that promoted Google technology to outside software developers. In 2014, he helped create G.D.S., which produced videos promoting Google developer tools.

Kelly Services declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Under Mr. Lubbers, the group brought in several other members of the Fellowship, including a video producer named Gabe Pannell. A 2015 photo posted to the web by Mr. Pannell’s father shows Mr. Lubbers and Mr. Pannell with Mr. Burton, who’s often called “The Teacher” or “Our Beloved Teacher” throughout the Fellowship. A caption on the photo, which was also recently deleted, calls Mr. Pannell a “latest student.”

Echoing claims made within the lawsuit, Erik Johanson, a senior video producer who has worked for the Google Developer Studio since 2015 through ASG, said the team’s leadership abused the hiring system that brought employees in as contractors.

“They were capable of further their very own goals very rapidly because they may hire individuals with far less scrutiny and a far less rigorous on-boarding process than if these people were brought on as full-time employees,” he said. “It meant that nobody was looking very closely when all these people were brought on from the foothills of the Sierras.”

Mr. Lloyd said that after applying 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 production team inside GDS in 2017. He soon noticed that just about half this team, including Mr. Lubbers and Mr. Pannell, got here from Oregon House.

Google paid to have a state-of-the-art sound system installed within the Oregon House home of 1 Fellowship member who worked for the team as a sound designer, in keeping with the suit. Mr. Lubbers disputed this claim in a phone interview, saying the equipment was old and would have been thrown out if the team had not sent it to the house.

The sound designer’s daughter also worked for the team as a set designer. Additional Fellowship members and their relatives were hired to staff Google events, including a photographer, a masseuse, Mr. Lubbers’s wife and his son, who worked as a DJ at company parties.

The corporate steadily served wine from Grant Marie, a winery in Oregon House run by a Fellowship member who previously managed the Fellowship’s winery, in keeping with the suit and an individual acquainted with the matter, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal.

“My personal religious beliefs are a deeply held private matter,” Mr. Lubbers said. “In all my years in tech, they’ve never played a job in hiring. I actually have at all times performed my role by bringing in the correct talent for the situation — bringing in the correct vendors for the roles.”

He said ASG, not Google, hired contractors for the GDS team, adding that it was positive for him to “encourage people to use for those roles.” And he said that in recent times, the team has grown to greater than 250 people, including part-time employees.

Mr. Pannell said in a phone interview that the team brought in employees from “a circle of trusted friends and families with extremely qualified backgrounds,” including graduates of the University of California, Berkeley.

In 2017 and 2018, in keeping with the suit, Mr. Pannell attended video shoots intoxicated and infrequently threw things on the presenter when he was unhappy with a performance. Mr. Pannell said that he didn’t remember the incidents and that they didn’t sound like something he would do. He also acknowledged that he’d had problems with alcohol and had sought help.

After seven months at Google, Mr. Pannell was made a full-time worker, in keeping with the suit. He was later promoted to senior producer after which executive producer, in keeping with his LinkedIn profile, which has also been deleted.

Mr. Lloyd brought much of this to the eye of a manager contained in the team, he said. But he was repeatedly told to not pursue the matter because Mr. Lubbers was a strong figure at Google and since Mr. Lloyd could lose his job, in keeping with his lawsuit. He said he was fired in February 2021 and was not given a reason. Google, Mr. Lubbers and Mr. Pannell said he had been fired for performance issues.

Ms. Jones, Mr. Lloyd’s lawyer, argued that Google’s relationship with ASG allowed members of the Fellowship to affix the corporate without being properly vetted. “That is certainly one of the methods the Fellowship utilized in the Kelly case,” she said. “They’ll get through the door without the traditional scrutiny.”

Mr. Lloyd is in search of damages for wrongful termination, retaliation, failure to stop discrimination and the intentional infliction of emotion distress. But he said he worries that, by doing a lot business with its members, Google fed money into the Fellowship of Friends.

“When you grow to be aware of this, you grow to be responsible,” Mr. Lloyd said. “You may’t look away.”

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