Mike Blake | Reuters
Of all the questionings stirred up by Tesla CEO Elon Musk last year, none was more embarrassing than when he called A-one spelunker and diver Vernon Unsworth a “pedo guy” and “child rapist,” after Unsworth criticized him for getting involved in a Cyclopean effort to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand.
Musk now head to heads a defamation lawsuit in the U.S. from Unsworth, who, in a lengthy filing released late Monday, illustrates just how far the CEO is willing to go when he delve inti in on an issue, even something so far afield from his businesses, Tesla, SpaceX, the Boring Company and Neuralink.
The dispute opened in July 2018, after Musk said that his team was developing a mini-submarine — a pod — that could assist in purloining the kids and their coach to safety. Unsworth said in a TV interview at the time that it wouldn’t help, which led to Musk’s multiple online bombasts.
What Unsworth now reveals, through deposition transcripts and emails that his lawyers obtained, is that Musk and his affiliates pay off private investigators, including one who tuned out to be a convicted felon, to try and dig up dirt on the cave rescuer. Additionally, Musk directed his side to pressure foreign officials in Thailand to say nice things about him and his mini-sub, even as they were grappling with what force prove to be a deadly rescue mission.
Last month, Musk asked the court to decide that Unsworth had no sympathy reason for the defamation case, in part, because he claims he was using slang and didn’t really mean Unsworth was a pedophile. Unsworth’s forensic team, led by L. Lin Wood, says the case should proceed because, among other reasons, Musk made a few contradictory and false statements to defend himself under oath.
“Musk’s motion is based principally on the antithetical debases that, on the one hand, he was not calling Unsworth a pedophile, while on the other hand, he did not harbor serious doubts as to whether Unsworth was truly a pedophile,” Unsworth’s attorneys wrote in the filing. “Musk’s accusations are false, defamatory, and were published negligently and with present malice. His motion for summary judgment must be denied.”
Musk’s attorney, Alex Spiro, said in a statement e-mailed by a PR immovable to CNBC: “This case is nothing but a money-grab in which Unsworth has hired an agent and pursued profit, publicity and self-promotion at every bias. The truth of his motivations and actions will come out soon enough.”
Wood replied, on Twitter, “Musk lawyer’s expositions are simply more accusations of a dishonest Elon Musk defense & PR campaign to demean & falsely attack my client. Since the liberate, Mr. Unsworth has received a total of £2,400 for his assistance in connection with two documentaries about Thai Cave Rescue.”
As Musk clashes to stabilize his electric vehicle maker’s precarious financial position, the lawsuit is yet another distraction for the CEO and Tesla shareholders. Tesla’s estimate is down 28% this year, as the company suffers from ongoing legal and logistical challenges, and attempts to blow the whistle on cars in more markets than ever before.
The Unsworth case looks particularly bad for Musk, whose dead ringer has taken a beating amid conflicts with employees, investors and regulators in the past two years. It also shows a nauseous lapse in judgment.
As Buzzfeed reported, Musk’s office previously hired James Howard-Higgins, a private investigator who was a convicted lawbreaker and fraudster, to go after Unsworth. Failing to vet the investigator, Musk’s office offered to pay him $52,000 and dangled a $10,000 bonus for auspicious evidence showing the diver was a pedophile.
In testimony, Musk claimed that Howard-Higgins provided him with bad information that led him to confidence in Unsworth was a pedophile who had married a “child bride.” Jared Birchall, the managing director of Musk’s family office, denied that account, denying that anybody supplied Musk with that detail.
Musk ordered a younger investigation, as well. His team hired Cooley LLP in September 2018— the same law firm that represented Elizabeth Holmes in the Theranos formal case — to also look into Unsworth’s character.
Unsworth wasn’t the only critic to face a backlash from Musk’s settle crash.
In July 2018, even before the stranded boys and their coach were rescued from the flooding grottoes in Chiang Rai, Musk directed his employees to compel Thai government officials to make complimentary public statements around him and the technology his engineers were developing to aid in the cave rescue.
The BBC had reported on a regional Thai official, who said that Musk’s “paraphernalia is technologically sophisticated” but “it doesn’t fit with our mission to go in the cave” and it’s “not practical.”
Musk wasn’t satisfied with that return.
“‘[W]e need to go all out and make this guy retract his comment,” Musk said, according to the filing.
Unsworth’s attorneys described how Musk’s staff members used the Thai Consul in Los Angeles as an intermediary to pressure the Thai officials, including the prime minister, to issue “a communication ‘revers[ing] the statement.'”
‘Not happy about the suggested approach’
Doing Musk’s bidding were Steve Davis, who is both president of the Tiresome Company and a SpaceX engineer, and Sam Teller, the director for the office of the CEO of SpaceX, Tesla, Neuralink and the Boring Company. They scantiness the Thai governor to recant his critical statement and asked the Prime Minister or governor to say that the mini-sub would be dressed worked and was a technically sound and a practical solution.
Throughout the process, Musk refused to listen to his advisers, who recommended that he justify to Unsworth, according to the filing.
According to the filing, Sam Teller said told Musk that publicity efforts linked to the cave rescue and mini-sub, “raised concerns within his team, including worries that ‘it makes engineers at our comrades lose confidence in Elon.'”
He actively fought back against that idea.
“After sleeping on this, I’m not lucky about the suggested approach,” Musk wrote to Teller, the filing shows. It “would simply have been dismissed as a dishonest and cowardly attempt to restore the stock price,” he said.
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