Autonomous driving engineer Anthony Levandowski was ordered to spend 18 months prison for stealing trade secrets from Google as he defected to Uber Technologies Inc., in one of the highest-profile criminal cases to hit Silicon Valley.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco imposed the sentence Tuesday after Levandowski pleaded for mercy and prosecutors urged jail time as a deterrent for "brazen and shocking" conduct.
The engineer's downfall is a saga of avarice and betrayal that left all involved looking bad.
"This was the most-watched, highest-visibility trade secrets case in a long, long time," said Jim Pooley, a dean of trade secrets law in the Valley.
It was compelling, he said, because as a leader of cutting-edge technology, Levandowski moved between powerful competitors "in a way that was both spectacular and secretive at the same time," and "with hundreds of millions of dollars being thrown around."
"Nobody came out of this looking especially terrific," Pooley said.
The engineer's guilty plea leaves him a bankrupted convicted felon. His last few years of courtroom battles, he said in a letter to Alsup, have been a "grueling lesson in humility." Levandowski had asked for a sentence of home confinement due to Covid-19 infections in prisons that he said could amount to a "death sentence."Alsup oversaw the civil suit that Alphabet Inc.'s driverless car unit, Waymo, brought against Uber in 2017 alleging the ride-hailing company profited from Levandowski's theft of secrets when it recruited him away from Alphabet's Google a year earlier. Almost a full year before the suit settled at trial, Alsup recommended prosecutors criminally investigate Levandowski. He was indicted a year ago.
During Levandowski's years at Google, the company heaped unprecedented sums on the engineer, including a $120 million bonus -- only to claw it all back, and more, in a bruising civil arbitration over his defection that drove him into bankruptcy.
Waymo's civil suit produced evidence that Uber's shunned former chief Travis Kalanick duped his company's board in order to lure Levandowski away from Google with a $680 million acquisition of his company, Ottomotto. The stock-based deal never paid out, and the cloak-and-dagger move detailed in emails and testimony ultimately ended with Uber firing Levandowski and later abandoning the legal cover it promised him against Google's anticipated reprisal.
Levandowski, in a court filing, urged the judge to resist the "sinister narrative" that he stole secrets worth billions of dollars to enrich himself and Uber –- for which he was pilloried in the media.