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Tesla loses its third general counsel in a year

Tesla store
Tesla is famous for churning through executives.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Tesla Inc. has lost its third general counsel in the last year.

Jonathan Chang, a longtime attorney for the electric-car maker who was promoted to the role in February, left the company Dec. 6, according to people familiar with the matter. He’s taken the general counsel job at artificial intelligence startup SambaNova, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the information isn’t public. Tesla shares pared gains on the news.

Chang, 41, joined Tesla in 2011. He was thrust into the general counsel role in February after Washington-based trial lawyer Dane Butswinkas lasted just two months with the company. His predecessor was Todd Maron, a former divorce attorney who had been in the job since 2014.

Bernstein Research finds turnover at Tesla is sky high and worries that could hurt the company.

It was an eventful 9 1/2 months for Chang and Tesla. He took over from Butswinkas a day after Chief Executive Elon Musk published problematic tweets about the outlook for vehicle production this year. Within a week, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission asked a judge to hold the billionaire in contempt of a 2018 settlement that required him to get social media posts that could be material to investors approved in advance.

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Musk and the SEC settled in April. That month, Tesla started waging a legal battle against a short seller it accused of trespassing at its California assembly plant and menacing workers. And in August, Walmart Inc. sued Tesla over rooftop solar fires at more than a half-dozen of the retailer’s stores. The two companies resolved the issue out of court last month.

Last week, Musk, 48, emerged victorious from a four-day trial over another series of tweets in which he called a British cave expert a pedophile. An eight-member jury unanimously decided his statements fell short of defamation.

Chang is leaving a company seemingly on firmer footing than it’s been when other senior managers have left the last few years. Tesla reported a surprise third-quarter profit in October and said it was ahead of schedule launching its next high-volume electric vehicle, the Model Y crossover. Its shares have surged more than 40% since then and are trading up for the year.

Tesla didn’t respond to questions, including who will replace Chang, who declined to comment. The company, which is notorious for churning through top executives, has promoted from within of late rather than replace senior managers with splashy outside hires.

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Other Tesla departures this year that the company backfilled internally include J.B. Straubel, the co-founder who ceded the role of chief technology officer in July, and Deepak Ahuja, the chief financial officer who retired in March.


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