Uber’s India plans may face disruptions amid Asia probe

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Bengaluru: Uber Technologies Inc.’s latest review of its Asian operations is likely to be a major distraction for the company’s Indian unit even as the parent grapples with an exodus of top executives and wages bruising market-share battles with taxi aggregators such as Lyft and Ola in key markets.

Bloomberg reported on Wednesday that Uber, the world’s most valuable start-up, is facing a US federal probe to determine whether the cab-hailing company broke laws against overseas bribery. The report also said Uber had initiated a review of its Asian operations while notifying US officials about payments made by company staff in Indonesia.

The review of its Asian operations includes countries such as China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and South Korea, with Uber specifically looking into roles played by former Uber executives such as Eric Alexander, who used to head the company’s Asia Pacific operations until recently. Alexander was fired from Uber earlier this year after media reports emerged that he and some other Uber executives had accessed the medical records of a woman who was raped by an Uber driver in Delhi in 2014.

According to two people familiar with Uber India’s operations, the company is likely to probe further into the matter of the rape victim’s medical records and look into potentially problematic business dealings that Alexander may have had in connection with the case. Uber’s law firm O’Melveny & Myers Llp is looking into this matter as part of the broader review of the Asia operations.

The company is also probing whether other executives in India, besides Alexander, had acted improperly in the matter of the rape victim. If the probe finds that other executives in India were also involved, it may lead to a shake-up within the ranks of Uber India, the two people mentioned above said. Both of them requested anonymity as the matter is confidential and they are not authorized to speak to reporters.

“This matter will continue to be a major distraction for Uber in the foreseeable future. It’s not going to go away anytime soon. In fact, this is just the beginning,” said one of the two people mentioned above.

Uber executives didn’t respond to phone calls, emails and text messages. Uber’s spokespeople in India were unavailable over the phone; their phones were switched off through the day.

Alexander’s actions were first investigated in May as part of a wide-ranging probe into Uber’s practices on issues such as sexual harassment and professionalism. At the time, Uber’s board had hired two law firms, Perkins Coie and Covington & Burling, to conduct the investigation after reports emerged about several instances of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour by members of the company’s management team. Uber has already fired 20 employees as part of this probe, though Alexander wasn’t one of them.

Silicon Valley-based news website Recode reported in June that Alexander showed the medical records to then Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and another top executive, Emil Michael. After seeing the records, the three executives doubted that the woman had been raped, the report said.

In a recent interview with Mint, Uber India head Amit Jain declined to comment on the issue of Alexander and the Delhi rape victim.

“Unfortunately, I can’t comment on the issue because it’s sub-judice. I personally don’t know much more because I wasn’t (at Uber) at that time,” Jain said in the July interview. Prior to that interview, Jain had condemned the Uber Delhi rape incident in an email to Mint in June, saying that Uber had taken “significant steps” to improve its safety processes and policies.

The rape in December 2014 was a landmark moment for Uber in India. Following the incident, Uber was banned by the Delhi government for a few weeks and the company was forced to adopt stricter driver verification processes that included adding an SOS button on its app and launching an expensive public relations campaign to repair its image.