A long-running Silicon Valley soap took an unexpected turn on Wednesday after outgoing President Donald Trump pardoned a former Google engineer for stealing self-driving car secrets shortly before joining Uber.
Trump's surprising pardon of Anthony Levandowski allows him not to serve an 18-month sentence in a federal prison that US District Judge William Alsup left no doubt last summer that he thought was justified.
"This is the greatest secret crime I've ever seen," Alsup said. “This was not small. This was huge. "
Levandowski pleaded guilty to taking over some of Google's breakthroughs in self-driving cars before leaving the company in 2016 and later joining Uber to help the taxi service build its own robotic vehicles.
In a statement about Levandowski's pardon, the Trump administration cited other comments Alsup made about the engineers' brilliant mind. "Mr. Levandowski has paid a significant price for his actions and intends to use his talents to advance the public good," the statement said.
During his tenure, Trump protested China & # 39; s alleged theft of US-developed technology as one of the main reasons for his administration's trade war with that country.
Levandowski did not go to jail after his conviction last year. Alsup postponed his sentence during the pandemic to reduce the risk of COVID-19 contamination. A hearing on the timing of Levandowski's imprisonment was scheduled for February 9.
In no time, Levandowski was thanking Trump and everyone who supported his cause.
The Trump administration cited the support of 13 people as a significant influence on the granting of pardons. The group pushing for a pardon included three of Levandowski & # 39; s lawyers in his criminal case, as well as Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal. Thiel is one of the most influential investors in the tech industry and was a prominent Trump supporter speaking at the 2016 Republican National Convention.
Trump also called on five other people who have either worked closely with Thiel or led startups that received investments from Thiel's various funds.
That group includes: Blake Masters, who co-wrote a book with Thiel and serves as Thiel Capital's chief operating officer; Trae Stephens, a partner at Thiel's Founders Fund and who is part of Trump's transition team following his election in 2016; Palmer Luckey, the co-founder of virtual reality startup Oculus, which was backed by Thiel before it was sold to Facebook; Ryan Petersen, CEP of Flexport, another technology company backed by Thiel; and James Proud, who once also ran a technology company called Hello, backed by Thiel.
Neither Thiel nor Stephens responded to a message left for them at the Founders Fund. Masters and Petersen did not immediately respond to a request for comment about their reasons for supporting Levandowski's pardon. Attempts to reach Proud were unsuccessful.
Levandowski's three attorneys lobbying for his pardon, Miles Ehrlich, James Ramsey and Amy Craig, have attempted to collect a $ 5 million bill that they say Levandowski still owes their firm, according to court documents. Levandowski filed for bankruptcy last March after he was ordered to pay Google $ 179 million as part of an arbitration dispute over bonuses paid to him before he left the company.
The attorneys had tried to claim $ 1.5 million in a trust account, but a bankruptcy judge turned down that request last year.
Now that Levandowski is not in prison, he may be able to get another job in the tech industry that would help him pay his lawyers. Ehrlich, Ramsey and Craig did not immediately respond to requests for comment about their support for a Levandowski pardon or the money their client owed.
In addition to criminal charges, Levandowski's cunning was also at the heart of a high-stakes lawsuit brought against Uber by Waymo, a spin-off that grew out of Google's work on robotic vehicles.
Uber denied ever using the technology Levandowski acquired from Google. But the taxi service paid $ 245 million to settle the case a few days after a high-profile lawsuit in which former CEO Travis Kalanick took over the witness stand to discuss his friendship with Levandowski.
The two men grew so close that in 2016 Uber paid $ 680 million to acquire a self-driving truck manufacturer called Otto that Levandowski started after leaving Google. Kalanick then appointed Levandowski to oversee Uber's self-driving car division before firing him in 2017.
Uber sold its self-driving car division late last year to Aurora, a Silicon Valley startup run by another former Google engineer, Chris Urmson, who once worked with Levandowski.
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