As Lawsuits Mount, Uber Appoints Chief Legal Officer From Obama Justice Department

Tony West (center) speaks during a Justice Department press conference in 2014. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Uber is beefing up its legal team for the many courtroom fights ahead.

The company announced Friday night that it had appointed Tony West as chief legal officer. West, former general counsel at PepsiCo who also served in the Justice Department during the Obama administration, will join Uber next month.

This represents the first major hire for new Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who recently took over for the company’s embattled founder Travis Kalanick. West replaces Sallie Yoo, who had been Uber’s top counsel since 2012.

“Tony is exactly what Uber needs now,” Khosrowshahi wrote in an email to staff. “Pepsi has been named one of the world’s most ethical companies 10 years in a row. Under Tony’s leadership, I’m confident that we will one day join this list.”

“His appointment is a clear sign that Uber is shifting its focus from being a scrappy startup to being a $60 billion company,” Bradley Tusk, a businessman and venture capitalist who helped Uber overcome regulatory hurdles in New York City, told Observer.

West, the brother-in-law of California Senator Kamala Harris, has his work cut out for him. Uber is facing at least five separate investigations and dozens of lawsuits. The company’s legal problems include:

  • A lawsuit from Google’s parent company Alphabet alleging trade secret misappropriation. Alphabet claims that one of its former executives, Anthony Levandowski, gave Uber 14,000 files containing information about Alphabet’s self-driving car program after it acquired his self-driving car startup Otto. Alphabet is seeking $2.6 billion in damages over a single trade secret. Uber denies any wrongdoing.
  • A Justice Department probe into the company’s use of a software called Greyball, which could prevent government officials from booking rides through the app. Uber allegedly used this tool to evade law enforcement and essentially operate unregulated in major cities.
  • An FBI investigation into a program Uber used to track Lyft drivers from 2014 to 2016. Uber drivers allegedly created fake Lyft accounts to monitor how many Lyft drivers were available in certain cities at certain times. Uber would then use that information to fill coverage gaps, and lure drivers from Lyft to Uber with incentives.
  • Allegations that Uber officials bribed Asian authorities in order to do business in certain countries. Such conduct would violate the federal Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
  • A criminal probe into how an Uber executive in India illegally obtained the medical records of a woman who had been raped by an driver. That executive was eventually fired.
  • A Justice Department investigation into whether Uber violated price transparency laws. The full details of this probe have not yet been made public.

West is no stranger to corporate malfeasance. While serving as associate attorney general, West settled a $17 billion mortgage securities lawsuit with Bank of America. He reported to former Attorney General Eric Holder, who led an investigation into employee misconduct at Uber last summer that led to more than 20 employees being fired.

But West will still have to contend with questions about Uber’s company culture. Last week three Latina engineers sued the company, claiming Uber pays women and people of color less and doesn’t promote them as frequently as white or Asian males. That’s the second lawsuit this year claiming Uber shortchanged drivers.

City, state and federal governments are also reassessing their relationships with the ride-sharing giant. Last month, Uber lost its license to operate in London over its “lack of corporate responsibility.” The company is appealing the decision, and Khosrowshahi has vowed to make changes—no doubt with West’s help.

“Uber is looking to take a kinder, gentler approach,” Tusk said. “But (West) is a savvy and tough guy, and he’ll fight if he needs to.”

Many of Uber’s other senior jobs remain vacant, including chief financial officer and chief marketing officer.

Uber did not respond to an Observer request for comment.

As Lawsuits Mount, Uber Appoints Chief Legal Officer From Obama Justice Department