Elon Musk’s Tesla Asked Law Firm to Fire Associate Hired From SEC

A partner at the law firm Cooley LLP received an unexpected call late last year from a lawyer for one of the company’s most famous clients, Elon Musk’s Tesla. company ,

TSLA 1.75%

with an alarm.

People familiar with the matter said the world’s richest man wanted Cooley, who has represented Tesla in several lawsuits, to fire one of its lawyers or else lose the electric car company’s business.

Musk’s wrath was aimed at a former SEC attorney hired by Cooley to practice securities litigation and law enforcement and had no role in the company’s work for Tesla. At the Securities and Exchange Commission, the attorney interviewed Mr. Musk during the agency’s investigation of the Tesla CEO’s 2018 tweet, claiming, incorrectly, that he obtained funding in order to make the electric car maker private.

The investigation resulted in a settlement in which Mr. Musk agreed to resign as chairman and pay a $20 million fine. He also agreed that Tesla’s lawyers would pre-review the tweets on certain topics, including the company’s financial results, sales numbers and proposed business combinations.

People said Cooley refused to fire the attorney, who remains an associate at the firm. Legal documents show that since early December, Tesla has begun taking steps in several cases to replace Cooley or add an additional advisor. Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., also known as SpaceX, has stopped using Cooley for regulatory work, according to people familiar with the matter.

In 2021, billionaire CEO Elon Musk reached many milestones across Tesla, SpaceX, and Starlink. Wall Street Journal reporters Rebecca Elliott and Micah Maidenberg detailed some of his biggest moments in 2021 and what will happen in 2022. Illustration: Tom Grillo

Neither Tesla, SpaceX nor Mr Musk responded to requests for comment.

The interaction with Cooley points to a larger pattern for Mr. Musk: He has long rejected regulators, recently directing his ire at individuals with links to the regulators with whom he has sparred.

Often, he expresses his displeasure on Twitter, where he has nearly 70 million followers. His comments often lead the online army to rally to his cause.

Last fall, he set his sights on a longtime critic of Tesla’s advanced driver assistance technology, Mary “Missy” Cummings, a researcher on how people interact with autonomous systems named as a consultant to the top US auto safety regulator.

The agency had just opened an investigation into Tesla’s advanced driver assistance technology after a series of accidents in which Teslas crashed into one or more parked emergency vehicles. Investigations like this can lead to recalls, and this was one of the most comprehensive investigations the agency has conducted to date of advanced driver assistance technology.

Dr. Cummings, an engineering professor at Duke University, has been critical of Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system known as Autopilot. A study published last year I co-wrote found that the company’s technology, which does not make vehicles self-driving, works inconsistently.

Tesla said driving with autopilot is safer than doing without it.

Mr. Musk, As soon as her date became public, he tweeted: “Objectively, its track record is highly biased against Tesla.” A barrage of cyberattacks on Dr. Cummings by Tesla supporters followed, many of them vulgar.

A petition launched on Change.org, the agency, called for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to rescind its appointment due to a perceived conflict of interest. The petition, which has since been removed from the platform, has received tens of thousands of signatures.

In the wake of the protest, the agency privately asked Dr. Cummings to distance herself from any Tesla matters, according to people familiar with the matter.

A spokeswoman for the US Department of Transportation confirmed Dr. Cummings is stepping down. She did not respond to a question about whether criticism of social media influenced the decision.

It is not unusual for companies to deal with government officials who fear they will harm their interests, whether through contributions to the campaign to influence public policy or legal action. Amazon.com company

and FacebookAnd

Now Meta Platforms company ,

They sought, unsuccessfully, to disqualify Lina Khan, chair of the Federal Trade Commission, from antitrust matters involving companies. Before assuming this role, Ms. Khan was a critic of the internet giants.

Mr. Musk stands out in expressing his criticism with specific, sometimes insulting, and public remarks.

Mr. Musk said he agrees with regulators 99.9% of the time. “On rare occasions, we disagree. This is almost always due to new technologies that were not anticipated by previous regulations,” he tweeted last year.

Early in the pandemic, Musk targeted a senior California county health official on government orders to keep the company’s vehicle assembly plant in Fremont, California closed to slow the spread of Covid-19.

“Tesla is suing Alameda County immediately. The unelected and ignorant “temporary health worker” in Alameda is acting contrary to the Governor, the President, our constitutional liberties, and only common sense!” Mr. Musk tweeted. The company later filed a lawsuit against the county.

Two days later, he said Tesla was restarting production in defiance of local authorities. Soon after, the county cleared Tesla to increase activity at the plant. A spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Public Health said Mr. Musk’s public criticism did not affect the county’s decision to give the green light to Tesla’s activity.

Elon Musk tours with the organizers

Read more related coverage, handpicked by the editors:

write to Rebecca Elliott at rebecca.elliott@wsj.com, Justin Scheck at justin.scheck@wsj.com, and Drew Fitzgerald at andrew.fitzgerald@wsj.com

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