Google hid emails from feds through 'attorney-client' claims, DoJ says

Google CEO Sundar Pichai hid emails from feds probing antitrust claims by falsely marking them as private and covered by ‘attorney-client’ privilege, DoJ says

  • Senior staffers – including CEO Sundar Pichai – for years hid emails from feds investigating antitrust claims against company, the DOJ said Monday
  • Execs at the company repeatedly brushed aside inquiring feds by hiding behind claims of ‘attorney-client privilege,’ feds said in a Monday filing in federal court
  • The agency contends senior staffers have engaged in the practice since 2013
  •  Feds asked the jurist to force Google brass to turn over the thousands of stashed away internal emails and sanction the search company for the infractions

Senior staffers at search giant Google – including CEO Sundar Pichai – for years hid thousands of emails from feds investigating antitrust claims against the company, by wrongly marking them as private and covered by attorney-client privilege.

According to a DoJ filing Monday, executives at the company repeatedly brushed aside inquiring feds by hiding behind claims of ‘attorney-client privilege’ – a practice the agency says staffers at the company have engaged in since 2013.

In a filing in US District Court in Washington, DC, Monday, DOJ officials urged Judge Amit Mehta to take action against the company for the infractions, which they allege unfairly ‘camouflaged’ thousands of documents from federal scrutiny. 

In the filing, federal officials asked the jurist to force Google brass to turn over the thousands of stashed away internal emails. It also wants a judge to sanction the search company for the infractions – which feds say was part of a premeditated practice put in place by top execs including 49-year-old Pichai.

‘Google has explicitly and repeatedly instructed its employees to shield important business communications from discovery by using false requests for legal advice,’ DOJ attorneys wrote in the Monday brief. 

Senior staffers at search giant Google – including CEO Sundar Pichai – for years hid thousands of emails from feds investigating antitrust claims against the company, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said Monday

‘Specifically, Google teaches its employees to add an attorney, a privilege label, and a generic ‘request’ for counsel’s advice to any sensitive business communications the employees or Google might wish to shield from discovery.’

Feds Monday pointed to one instance from 2018, where Pichai emailed YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki to discuss an upcoming press story.

‘Attorney Client Privileged, Confidential,’ Pichai wrote, ccing Google’s then-general counsel Kent Walker. ‘Kent pls advise.’

Feds pointed out that Walker never replied to the thread, saying it was ‘directed to a non-attorney’ about ‘a non-legal press issue.’

The email was initially withheld by Google in the government’s ongoing antitrust case against the company, feds said – which is analyzing claims Google cut deals with device makers to be the default search engine on their appliances – and was only produced after the Justice Department challenged it, the department said.

The government-filed suit also accuses Google of establishing ‘unlawful monopolies’ in the online search and advertising industries that break federal antitrust laws. 

According to the agency, whose Washington, DC, headquarters is pictured here, Google execs repeatedly brushed aside inquiring feds by hiding behind claims of ‘attorney-client privilege’ – a practice the agency contends staffers at the company have engaged in since 2013

‘In these email chains, the attorney frequently remains silent, underscoring that these communications are not genuine requests for legal advice but rather an effort to hide potential evidence,’ the Justice Department said.

The filing went on to accuse senior Google staffers of engraining into employees the practice of using attorney-client privilege to prevent certain emails from ever coming into government hands in the event of litigation.

‘For almost a decade, Google has trained its employees to use the attorney-client privilege to hide ordinary business communications from discovery in litigation and government investigations,’ the Justice Department said. 

Officials further claimed that ‘Google teaches its employees to add an attorney, a privilege label, and a generic “request” for counsel’s advice to any sensitive business communications the employees or Google might wish to shield from discovery.’

Google, however, contends that its practices are protected by federal law and comparable to those of other companies.

‘Just like other American companies, we educate our employees about legal privilege and when to seek legal advice,’ a Google spokesman said in a statement that asserted the company has already turned over more than 4 million documents in the Justice Department’s antitrust case.

‘Our teams have conscientiously worked for years to respond to inquiries and litigation, and suggestions to the contrary are flatly wrong,’ a Google spokesperson said. ‘Just like other American companies, we educate our employees about legal privilege and when to seek legal advice.

 ‘We have produced over four million documents to the [Department of Justice] in this case alone – including many that employees had considered potentially privileged.’

Meanwhile, the DOJ – which previously wrapped an antitrust investigation involving allegations of biased search results by the company in 2013 – says top staffers knowingly abused the attorney-client privilege to hide emails that could potentially incriminate them in a prospective case.

Attorney-client privilege cannot always be claimed on emails that include a generic request for legal advice, experts say.

‘The historical purpose of the privilege is to give lawyers the ability to be involved in frank conversations with the client so as to deter misconduct – prevent it before it happens – not to protect misconduct against disclosure,’ University of Miami law professor Michele DeStefano told The Wall Street Journal.  

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