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Saboteur or whistleblower? Battle between Elon Musk and former Tesla employee turns ugly, exposing internal rancor

Tesla is suing a former employee for allegedly stealing secrets by hacking Tesla's computer systems. CEO Elon Musk believes the work to be internal sabotage. (Video: Reuters)

Hours after Tesla sued its former employee on charges he had stolen company secrets, and days after chief Elon Musk had called him a saboteur, the Silicon Valley automaker made a startling claim. The company had received a call from a friend of the employee, Martin Tripp, saying he would be coming to Tesla's Gigafactory battery plant in Nevada to “shoot the place up,” according to a Tesla spokesman.

But Tripp, who says he became a whistleblower after seeing what he called dangerous conditions in the company's car batteries, told The Washington Post he had said no such thing. Emails exchanged that day between him and Musk, provided to The Post and confirmed by Tesla, show bitter words from both men but also Tripp saying he had “never made a threat.” Tesla's claims, he said, are “absurd! Insane is a better word.”

The sheriff's office in Storey County, where the Gigafactory is located, said Thursday that it had received information of a threat to security at the Gigafactory on Wednesday but determined “after several hours of investigation ... there was no credible threat.” Sheriff Gerald Antinoro said that names of all involved parties will be withheld while the investigation is ongoing. Tesla said it is increasing security at the Gigafactory as a precaution.

The showdown has exposed deep rancor at a tech giant famous for its head-turning cars, high-pressure workloads — and Musk, its unyielding boss. It also marks a new depth of suspicions from Musk, who recently sent companywide emails urging workers to stay vigilant against shadowy “outside forces,” saying, “Only the paranoid survive.”

[Former employee sued by Tesla says he was a whistleblower, alarmed by company practices and Elon Musk]

It's rare for any major company, let alone one worth roughly $60 billion, to allow its internal warfare to play out in such a public way. It's even rarer for a billionaire leader like Musk — currently leading efforts to build self-driving cars, underground super-tunnels and advanced spacecraft — to serve as a soldier in the charge.

But the emails show Musk duking it out with Tripp, calling him a “horrible human being” who should be “ashamed” of himself and face “legal penalties.”

Tesla's lawsuit, filed Wednesday in a Nevada federal court, accuses Tripp of hacking the company's computer systems in order to steal confidential photos and video of Tesla's manufacturing systems and other trade secrets. The suit also accuses him of giving false information to journalists, being “disruptive and combative” in the workplace and attempting to rope other co-workers into his scheme.

Tesla lawyers said Tripp, who worked at the Gigafactory as a technician from October to last week, was disgruntled over a lost promotion. But Tripp said he tampered with no systems and shared information with the media only after seeing things that alarmed him within the company, including what he says were dangerously punctured batteries used in Tesla's latest Model 3 sedans. Tripp said he has documents to support his claims, some of which, he said, were cited in a Business Insider news report.

Tesla rebutted Tripp's claims to being a whistleblower and said his claims are exaggerated or misconstrued. The company said no punctured batteries were ever used in Model 3 vehicles and that Musk accurately reported the cars' production numbers.

The Post could find no criminal charges against Tripp. In 2007, he was the victim in a domestic incident in Michigan.

Tripp said he was visited by sheriff's deputies Wednesday night about the threat allegations. He is seeking an attorney and official whistleblower protections. He said he and his family have temporarily vacated their home after their address was posted online.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.