It’s been a bizarre week for Tesla, as reports of subversion and paranoia swirl around the company. The week began with leaked emails from CEO Elon Musk warning employees of sabotage and ended with the alleged saboteur casting himself instead as a whistleblower who was exposing the company.
On Monday, CNBC published two emails that Musk had sent to all Tesla employees over the course of two days urging them to be on the lookout for suspicious activity. He wrote in the first email that management discovered over the weekend that a disgruntled employee who lost out on a promotion had been making malicious coding changes to the company’s manufacturing operating system and sending large amounts of confidential data to third parties.
Though it didn’t initially appear that the saboteur had been doing the bidding of an outside actor, Musk suggested that Wall Street short sellers, oil companies, and gas and diesel car competitors all “want Tesla to die” and may be willing to resort to cloak-and-dagger tactics. The second company-wide email informed employees of a factory fire that had held up manufacturing for several hours on Sunday night. Musk wrote that the fire was “hard to explain” and, though it could have just been a “random event,” he urged employees to follow former Intel CEO Andrew Grove’s motto: “Only the paranoid survive.”
Tesla then filed a lawsuit against the alleged renegade employee, 40-year-old Martin Tripp, on Wednesday seeking $1 million in damages and permission to search his email, cloud accounts, personal USB and computer memory, and cellphone communications. The lawsuit alleges that Tripp took dozens of photographs of Tesla’s manufacturing systems, wrote code to export data from an internal network, sabotaged the company’s operating system, and made false claims to the media about the scrap material that its factories have been producing. Shortly after Tesla filed the suit, the company claimed that it had to lock down its Nevada Gigafactory for several hours because it had received a call from Tripp’s friend claiming that he planned to “shoot the place up.” The local sheriff’s office conducted an investigation and found that there was “no credible threat.”
The story then grew even more outlandish when Tripp began presenting his version of the events to multiple media outlets. Tripp said he had never made any threats, telling the Washington Post that the claim was “absurd” and “insane.” He also claimed that he had been leaking information to reporters but never tampered with any operating systems, and thus identifies as a “whistleblower” rather than a saboteur. Tripp accused Tesla of placing faulty batteries that had been punctured by a haywire robot into 732 Model 3 sedans, and had provided internal documents to Business Insider for a report that came out in early June. “The data I was collecting was so severe, I had to go to the media,” he told CNN. (Tesla has maintained that it discarded the damaged batteries.) Tripp also alleged that Tesla has been inflating its Model 3 production numbers and storing scrap in an unsafe manner.
Several outlets obtained a fiery email exchange between Tripp and Musk on Thursday, in which the former employee wrote, “Don’t worry, you have what’s coming to you for the lies you have told to the public and investors.” The CEO wrote, “You should ashamed of yourself for framing other people. You’re a horrible human being.”