Twitter paid whistleblower $9.8m for silence, lawyer for Elon Musk says

NEW YORK – Twitter paid a whistle-blower, who raised questions about operational problems within the social media platform, US$7 million (S$9.8 million) to secure his silence, according to a lawyer for Mr Elon Musk.

The payment was mentioned in passing at a Sept 6 hearing in the lawsuit between Twitter and Mr Musk over his attempts to cancel a US$44 billion purchase of the company.

“They’re paying the guy US$7 million and making sure he’s quiet,” Mr Musk’s attorney Alex Spiro said at the hearing. People familiar with the matter confirmed the reference was to a payment to whistle-blower Peiter Zatko.

Twitter representatives on Thursday declined to comment about the payment to Mr Zatko, the company’s former head of security. The Wall Street Journal reported the payment on Thursday.

The newspaper, citing unidentified people familiar with the matter, said the payment was part of a settlement related to Mr Zatko’s lost compensation after leaving Twitter. The deal did not let Mr Zatko speak publicly, but would allow him to act as a government whistle-blower about his time at the social medial company, the Journal reported, citing the people.

Mr Musk walked away from his acquisition of Twitter after claiming the platform misled him and investors about the number of spam and bot accounts among its more than 230 million users. Twitter counters that Mr Musk’s bot concerns are a pretext to get out of a deal in which the world’s richest person allegedly developed buyer’s remorse.

Both sides are gearing up for an October trial of Twitter’s lawsuit to force Mr Musk to consummate the deal. Delaware Chancery Judge Kathaleen St Jude McCormick on Wednesday approved Mr Musk’s bid to add Mr Zatko’s allegations to his counterclaims, but she denied his bid to delay the trial.

The billionaire argues that Mr Zatko raised concerns about the number of bots embedded in Twitter’s customer base along with allegations of lax computer security and privacy issues before being fired from the social media platform. Mr Musk contends that Mr Zatko’s claims bolster his arguments that he legitimately nixed the deal.

During their argument to Judge McCormick, Twitter’s lawyers took aim at Mr Zatko’s credibility, dismissing his complaints as being motivated to harm the company he was fired from and not credible.

Mr Spiro defended Mr Zatko by saying the whistle-blower did not just take his money and leave his issues with Twitter behind. Instead, he approached Congress and regulators with his complaints. Mr Zatko is scheduled to testify before a Senate committee next week and has been subpoenaed to testify in the Twitter lawsuit as well.

“The problem is that they paid him US$7 million,” Mr Spiro told the judge. “The problem is that if he really wanted money, then how come he’s still doing this if he doesn’t want justice also.” BLOOMBERG