A controversial former Uber boss, who was one of the ride-hailing service’s most senior executives when it was engulfed in crisis last year, was paid $4m (£2.8m) in consultancy fees by the venture capital firm brought in to revive the company’s fortunes.
Emil Michael received the payment for advice given to the technology investor SoftBank as it acquired a 17.5% stake in Uber at the turn of the year.
The SoftBank investment was billed as a fresh start for Uber, after it had been swamped by allegations of sexual harassment, theft of trade secrets and data breaches during 2017.
Michael, who was a senior vice-president before leaving Uber in June, was reportedly a key ally of its founder and former chief executive Travis Kalanick, whose influence on the board was diminished after SoftBank took its stake.
Kalanick resigned from his executive role in June, amid efforts to bring about wholesale change of Uber’s corporate culture. In January he sold about a third of his 10% Uber stake to SoftBank, while retaining a seat on the company’s board.
SoftBank declined to comment on why it had hired such a high-profile member of Kalanick’s so-called “A-Team”, but a spokesman added: “As is common practice in corporate transactions, SoftBank occasionally appoints individual consultants to advise on complex matters. Emil played a helpful consultancy role in the Uber transaction.”
While there is no suggestion that Michael was involved in any of the historical allegations of illegal behaviour at Uber, he has been portrayed as a polarising figure.
In 2014 Michael apologised after suggesting at a private dinner that Uber might hire a team of researchers to dig up compromising material on critical journalists.
A firsthand report of the event by BuzzFeed said he specifically cited Sarah Lacy, the editor of the technology website PandoDaily, who had accused Uber of sexism and misogyny and said she would be deleting Uber’s app from her phone.
Michael said he had been criticizing Lacy for suggesting taxis were a safer option for women than Uber. He added that the suggestion Uber might dig up dirt on its critics was “hypothetical”.
The incident became newsworthy again last year as a former Uber engineer plunged the company into crisis by detailing a series of allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination, claiming that management repeatedly dismissed her complaints, protected a repeat offender and threatened to fire her for raising concerns.
Michael’s name also emerged in a separate row after he and Kalanick visited an escort/karaoke bar in South Korea several years ago as part of a business trip, which led to a complaint to human resources.
Michael’s lawyers, Schillings, said the businessman was one of 12 executives at his level at Uber and that he was only responsible for 2% of the company’s staff.
Schillings added: “It is false to say that he held part responsibility for the alleged corporate culture at Uber … Our client had no involvement in allegations of sexual harassment, trade secret violations or data breaches.”
The news about Michael’s consultancy fee comes as the Guardian has also established that SoftBank’s separate $100bn Vision Fund – which is backed by the likes of Apple and the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund – is barred from holding a stake in Uber despite it being set up specifically to invest in technology companies.
A little-known clause buried in the fund’s rule book prevents it from taking stakes in “P2P ride sharing”, which rules out investments in Uber and its competitors.
SoftBank declined to comment on the restriction or explain why the clause had been inserted into the rule book.