Feds Want 2 Years in Prison for Ex-Uber Executive

Former star Google engineer admits he stole IP and founded his own company that was eventually acquired by Uber faces sentencing

By Dorothy Atkins in Law360.com on July 29, 2020


Federal prosecutors asked U.S. District Judge William Alsup on Tuesday to sentence bankrupt former Uber Technologies Inc. executive Anthony Levandowski to 27 months in prison for one count of stealing Google’s trade secrets, while Levandowski argued he deserves at most a year of home confinement.

In back-to-back sentencing memos, prosecutors and Levandowski fought over what is an appropriate punishment for admitting to a single count of trade secret theft out of a total of 33 criminal charges that were lobbed against the 40-year-old engineer in an August grand jury indictment.

Prosecutors argued that Levandowski is “still in denial” about his crime, which the government said was “brazen and shocking,” and therefore he should serve years behind bars.

“He raided Google’s repositories and stole proprietary information that would have undoubtedly been useful to him,” the government argued. “That was criminal.”

But Levandowski’s counsel argued that the charges against the star engineer have been sensationalized, in part because he was caught between two tech giants in the race to build self-driving vehicles.

“While it was never in dispute that Mr. Levandowski possessed some Google documents after leaving his job, there is no evidence that Mr. Levandowski used or shared any of Google’s proprietary or trade secret information with employees at Uber or anyone else,” his attorneys said.

Levandowski was one of the founding members of Google LLC’s engineering team that worked on its self-driving car project from 2009 until he resigned from the company without notice in January 2016 to form his own company, Ottomotto, which he later sold to Uber.

But Uber fired Levandowski in May 2017 after Google parent Alphabet Inc.’s self-driving car unit, Waymo LLC, launched a hotly contested civil lawsuit against Uber over claims of trade secret theft related to the self-driving car technology.

The tech giants settled their dispute in the middle of trial before Judge Alsup in 2018, but the case spurred prosecutors to launch an investigation into Levandowski’s departure from Google, and last year the government unveiled a 33-count criminal indictment accusing Levandowski of downloading files from Google’s secure database before leaving the company.

Levandowski initially pled not guilty, but in March he agreed to plead guilty to one count of trade secret theft. The count relates to a weekly project-tracking spreadsheet, called the “Chauffeur Weekly Update,” which documented Google’s project development efforts.

In a redacted memo Tuesday, Levandowski’s counsel argued that he never used the stolen document to harm Google, and he’s already been punished for his actions. His attorneys noted that the lawsuits that have arisen since he left Google have destroyed his reputation, obliterated his finances and pushed him into bankruptcy. He also lost his job at Uber for broadly asserting his Fifth Amendment rights in the Waymo litigation, his attorneys said.

Levandowski’s counsel added that he is at high risk of contracting the coronavirus in prison because he’s had respiratory illnesses recently and twice had pneumonia since 2015. Therefore, at most, he should be sentenced to home confinement and ordered to pay a fine of $95,000 and roughly $756,500 in restitution.

Levandowski’s sentencing memo attached 40 letters from friends, family members and colleagues in support of the engineer along with a redacted letter written by Levandowski. In it he asks Judge Alsup for leniency and emphasized that he’s learned his lesson and wants to teach other aspiring engineers not to make the same mistakes.

“The lesson from my story is clear: It’s not worth it,” Levandowski wrote. “It’s not worth the loss of respect from your family, friends, and colleagues. It’s not worth the public humiliation. It’s not worth the shame.”

Levandowski recalled immigrating to the U.S. from Belgium without knowing English as a teenager to live with his father and to have more educational opportunities. He said he recognizes now that he’s always had a “complex” of being a people pleaser, which he said played a role in his decision to leave Google in 2016.

Levandowski wrote that when he left Google, he had been under intense pressure for years to succeed at work and had faced “incredibly grueling and intense personal and professional obstacles.” In hindsight, he wrote, he recognizes that his hasty departure from Google, his “eagerness” to get his new company off the ground and his lack of communication was a mistake, and he regrets that his departure served as a “slap in the face” to his teammates at Google and its co-founder Larry Page.

“I deeply regret the loss of those friendships; many great years of my life were spent building amazing things with those people and learning from them,” he wrote.

Levandowski noted, however, that he is still in bankruptcy and is fighting other litigation over his departure, which has severely affected his family and reputation, so he has a long road ahead before he can put his mistakes behind him.

A hearing on Levandowski’s change of plea and sentencing is set for Aug. 4.

Levandowski’s proposed plea deal came weeks after he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, citing a $179 million state judgment that affirmed an arbitration award against him in an employment contract dispute with Google.

Levandowski’s counsel declined to comment Wednesday. Representatives for the government didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The government is represented by Katie Wawrzyniak and Andrew F. Dawson of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California.

Levandowski is represented by Miles Ehrlich, Ismail Ramsey and Amy Craig of Ramsey & Ehrlich LLP.

The case is U.S. v. Levandowski, case number 3:19-cr-00377, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

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