In his final hours of office, Donald Trump pardoned a former Google engineer who was convicted of stealing trade secrets from the company before taking up a new role with competitor Uber.
Anthony Levandowski, 40, had been sentenced in August 2020 to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to inappropriately downloading trade secrets from Google’s self-driving car operation Waymo, where he was an engineer.
The surprise pardon was remarkable for its star-studded list of supporters and its justification. “Mr Levandowski [pleaded] guilty to a single criminal count arising from civil litigation,” read the White House announcement. “Notably, his sentencing judge called him a ‘brilliant, groundbreaking engineer that our country needs’.”
The single guilty count was the result of a plea bargain; the engineer was originally charged with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets. And the sentencing judge, William Alsup, described Levandowski’s theft as “the biggest trade secret crime I have ever seen” and refused the engineer’s request for home confinement, saying, it would give “a green light to every future brilliant engineer to steal trade secrets. Prison time is the answer to that.”
Levandowski had not yet begun his prison sentence due to the Covid-19 pandemic. A hearing on the timing of his prison sentence had been scheduled for 9 February.
Levandowski was a leader in the race to develop self-driving cars. He made a name for himself in the autonomous vehicle space after building a driverless motorcycle in a contest organized by the Pentagon’s research arm, Darpa, in 2004.
Levandowski went on to found his own startup, 510 systems, which was acquired by Google in 2011. At Google, he helped to develop driverless cars until 2016. Upon leaving the company and while negotiating a new role at Uber, he later admitted, he downloaded more than 14,000 Google files to his personal laptop.
Whether any secrets from those files made their way into Uber’s self-driving technology became the center of a bitter legal battle between the two tech giants that resulted in a $245m settlement for Google’s self-driving spin-off, Waymo, and criminal prosecution for Levandowski.
The White House cited the support of 13 individuals in its pardon statement, including the billionaire Facebook board member Peter Thiel and several members of his coterie: Trae Stephens and Blake Masters, who have both worked for Thiel’s various investment firms, and Ryan Petersen, James Proud and Palmer Luckey, who have all received investments for startups from Thiel.
Thiel donated to Trump’s 2016 campaign, spoke at his nominating convention, and gave a press conference in which he argued that the then-candidate’s calls for a ban on immigration by Muslims should not be taken “literally”. In 2016, as Thiel was growing more engaged with the pro-Trump far right, Thiel met with a prominent white nationalist, BuzzFeed News reported. As Trump’s presidency floundered, Thiel distanced himself from his former support.
Luckey is best known as the founder of Oculus, the virtual reality headset startup that was acquired by Facebook for $2bn in 2014. His politics came under scrutiny during the 2016 campaign when it was revealed that he was funding a group dedicated to “shitposting” and anti-Hillary Clinton memes, and he was pushed out of Facebook in 2017. In July, his new startup, Anduril Industries, won a five-year contract with US Customs and Border Protection to provide AI technology for a border surveillance.
Other supporters of the pardon include the former Disney executive Michael Ovitz and three of Levandowski’s attorneys.
Levandowski was one of 143 people to be granted clemency by Trump on his last day in office. The former president has pardoned 70 people and commuted the sentences of a further 73 people. The recipients include Trump’s former senior adviser Steve Bannon, rappers Lil Wayne and Kodak Black, the Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and scores of others.
The White House said Levandowski had “paid a significant price for his actions and plans to devote his talents to advance the public good”.
Since his legal troubles began, Levandowski has founded a new self-driving car company and established a church focused on “the realization, acceptance and worship of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence (AI) developed through computer hardware and software”. The website for the Way of the Future Church appears to have become defunct at some point in March or April 2020.