After slurring as a “pedo guy” someone who had been widely hailed as a hero, most folks would likely be pleased the case didn’t wind up in court.
But, it seems, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has a very different opinion about his very public spat with Vernon Unsworth, one of the divers who earlier this summer helped rescue members of a youth soccer team trapped in a flooded Thai cave. At one point, Musk referred to Unsworth as “pedo guy,” slang for a pedophile, prompting the British diver to threaten to sue for slander. Musk subsequently apologized, but the fact that Unsworth hasn’t sued, the Tesla CEO said in a tweet this week, is “strange.”
Bringing the issue back up might normally have gone by unnoticed, but it comes at a time when the 47-year-old executive’s actions are coming under much more scrutiny – and criticism – than normal. One reason is the way he handled the announcement that Tesla might take itself private, Musk going so far as to suggest “funding (is) secured,” though that assertion now appears quite questionable and has triggered several lawsuits and an SEC investigation.
The dispute between Musk and Unsworth began after the Tesla CEO said he was shipping a “kid’s size” mini-sub to Thailand to aid in the rescue effort. Because of the shape of, and conditions in, the cave, Unsworth declared the sub useless. The dispute quickly escalated, the diver declaring that Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts,” prompting Musk to call Unsworth “pedo guy.”
Considering the dangers Unsworth and his colleagues faced, as well as their eventual success, the dispute got widespread coverage and Musk was widely upbraided. He ultimately apologized after Unsworth threatened to sue and one of Tesla’s larger investors suggested that Musk’s behavior was unacceptable.
(Tesla staying public; CEO Musk facing more scrutiny. Click Here for the story.)
It was also part of a growing pattern of behavior that became very visible during Tesla’s second-quarter earnings call. Musk abruptly cut off several analysts, ignoring questions he declared boring, while spending nearly 20% of the teleconference chatting with an investor who was clearly a big Tesla fan.
Company insiders have also been raising growing concerns about the South African-born executive’s behavior, something that appears to be backed up by the growing number of mid- and senior-level executives who have quit Tesla over the last year or so.
But things may have reached crisis level with Musk’s Aug. 7 tweet declaring his intent to take Tesla private, at $420 a share, and declaring, “funding secured.” Barely a week later, Musk followed up with a blog post that appeared to contradict that assertion, indicating he had simply been buoyed by a possibility of financial support expressed by officials with the Saudi Arabian sovereign investment fund. Last Friday, Musk said he decided not to follow through on privatization, insisting it was a response to investor pressure. But many analysts believe there simply wasn’t a workable plan.
In the meantime, the SEC has subpoenaed Tesla and Musk and they have also been hit with several lawsuits from short-sellers who claim they lost millions as a result of the original tweet.
(Musk laments “excruciating” pressures at Tesla. Click Here for more on his revealing interview.)
Musk subsequently said he would run further tweets on privatization by the Tesla board. He has also come under pressure to back down from using social media, in general. But the latest post raises questions anew.
The dispute with Unsworth surprised many observers, though the matter appeared to have died when Musk posted a tweet last month saying, “I have made the mistaken assumption — and I will attempt to be better at this — of thinking that because somebody is on Twitter and is attacking me that it is open season,” he said in a question-and-answer with Bloomberg. “That is my mistake. I will correct it.”
He has now doubled down on the battle, triggered by a comment made on Twitter by one of Musk’s followers. The Tesla chief said he can’t understand why Unsworth didn’t sue, especially after being “offered free legal services.” Whether he was trying to re-open the spat or even push the diver into taking the matter to court is unclear.
Even if Unsworth doesn’t take the bait himself, it is likely to raise further concerns about Musk and, in particular, his ability to continue leading Tesla. He didn’t make a good case for himself in an interview with the New York Times earlier this month. He told the paper the last year has been “excruciating,” noted his has been working as much as 120 hours a week, sleeping at the Tesla plant in Fremont, California, often going days without stepping outside – and declaring his fear that “the worst is yet to come.”
It could be of his own making if that happens, some observers have suggested, and the renewed twitter battle may be a case in point.