As Uber prepares to go public, its lead lawyer races to clean it up

Not long after Tony West joined Uber as a chief legal officer in November 2017, he commenced a delicate task: crafting a transparency report to quantify how many people had been sexually assaulted during Uber rides.

The effort was part of West’s mandate to help clean up Uber, which had been grappling with legal entanglements, safety matters, and problematic workplace culture.

So West ordered Uber employees to work with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a nonprofit, to review 221 instances of sexual assault that occurred during rides in 2017. He listened to customer service calls, comprising one in which an Uber driver said he had raped a passenger. And the company began auditing past complaints to determine whether it had evidence of old assaults.

Nearly 16 months later, the work is far from finished. “This is a hugely under-reported set of situations,” West, 53, said. “Those numbers, as we continue to count them, they actually might go up.”

Since Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s chief executive, brought in West to help turn around the ride-hailing company and professionalize it, the attorney has swept aside many of its highest-profile legal woes. While Uber is still dealing with hundreds of legal cases, West settled a tabloid-worthy trade secrets lawsuit last year by Alphabet’s self-driving car business, Waymo, and negotiated a multistate settlement over a vast 2016 data breach.

But the sexual assault transparency report, which West plans to release this year, underlines just how much more work Uber requires to do — and how thorny the challenge can be to navigate.

“He is very upfront about the fact that it’s not going to be pretty,” Tammy Albarran, Uber’s deputy general counsel, said of West and the transparency report.

The work is especially valuable as Uber gears up for a highly anticipated initial public offering. Lyft, Uber’s main rival in the United States, made its offering prospectus public Friday and is likely to begin trading on the stock market next month.

Uber, which may go public at a $120 billion valuation, would dwarf Lyft. But to pull off a successful offering, the company must diminish its legal exposure and show that it has revamped its culture and cares about the safety of passengers.

West, a former Justice Department official and the brother-in-law of Sen. Kamala Harris, the California Democrat who is running for president, said he was hitching his reputation to Uber and its changes. “I had a reputation that I was also putting on the table, right?” he said in a recent interview.

A native of the San Francisco Bay Area West graduated from Harvard University and Stanford Law School. He rose to prominence as an assistant attorney general in the Obama administration, during which he urged the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act and worked to reduce the number of detainees in the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

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