I’ve been following the Silicon Valley story of Ellen Pao with interest. Pao is the former partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins who is now suing the firm, alleging sex discrimination. She claims that she was treated differently than male employees were; Kleiner claims, basically, that she wasn’t very good.
The case has attracted enormous interest in Silicon Valley as an avatar for discussion about gender imbalance in the tech world.
It’s certainly interesting, from that perspective. But I’ve been following it closely for another reason: Ellen Pao is married to a man whom I’ve written about in depth. His name is Buddy Fletcher, and and he has a history of filing dubious lawsuits inspired by perceived slights and financial desperation. In my opinion he is, at the very least, a scoundrel; the forces of law may yet prove him a criminal.
I wrote about Fletcher in Boston magazine; he’s a Harvard graduate, an African-American man, who went to Wall Street and tried to make a lot of money. He left his first job at the brokerage firm Kidder Peabody and promptly filed a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination. Like Ellen Pao, Fletcher charged that he was treated differently from the great majority of employees whose identity did not match his. In my article, I found that the grounds for that lawsuit were thin at best. Fletcher didn’t win it—in fact, he lost the ruling on whether he was discriminated against—but he was awarded back pay of about a million dollars. He claimed that as a victory, and the press played along. So when Fletcher opened a hedge fund that appeared to generate remarkable, almost unbelievable returns, the press proclaimed him a financial genius—an African-American who had taken lily-white Wall Street by storm.
He is broke now, because he is not a financial genius, and there is ample suggestion that he is broke even though he siphoned money from his hedge fund—including retirement money from Louisiana firefighters—to support a lavish lifestyle that included the ownership of three apartments at the Dakota, John Lennon’s old apartment building in New York. (If you don’t know it—it’s pricey.) That didn’t stop him, after he tried to buy a fourth and was rejected by the board after it scrutinized the state of his finances, from suing the apartment building for racial discrimination. That suit trudges endlessly on, even though Fletcher has gone through teams of lawyers because he consistently declines to pay them.
One other fact about Fletcher that’s worth knowing: Until he fled New York, married Ellen Pao and had a baby, he had lived his entire adult life as a gay man. Not bisexual—gay.
The judge in Pao’s case has ruled that none of this is admissible, and I think that’s the right decision; in court, Pao’s allegations should stand or fall on their own merits. The mainstream media seems to have decided that it’s sexist or something to write about her marriage, and so I haven’t seen a single smart article that really explores her relationship with Fletcher and whether it’s had any impact on her decision to sue Kleiner Perkins.
But I can’t help but think that her relationship with Fletcher is relevant, even if you can’t establish that legally. I’ll be honest: First, the fact that Pao married him makes me wonder about her, and not just because of his sexual orientation. It just wouldn’t take much digging to find out that Fletcher’s financial ethics are highly questionable. Either Pao didn’t care—not great—or didn’t know. In which case, you have to wonder what kind of a venture capitalist she is. If can’t do basic due diligence on a marital prospect about whom much has been written, how could you be trusted to give good advice on a company in which to invest millions?
It’s also hard not to wonder if the suit isn’t inspired by Fletcher in some way; until the past couple of years, he had made quite a lot of money off allegations of racism and the use of race as a marketing tool.
And the other way it could have been inspired by him, of course, is due to the fact that he needs the money. He is more than broke; he’s deeply in debt. I don’t know how many lawsuits he’s now defending himself against, but the latest was filed a day or so ago.
Ellen Pao could conceivably make tens of millions of dollars off her lawsuit—the jury is deliberating even as I write this—which probably wouldn’t resolve all of her husband’s financial issues, but would certainly help.
And that’s why Pao’s case, much as some people would like it to be a litmus test of sexism in Silicon Valley, is just a terrible way to air these issues. It—and Ellen Pao—are far too complicated for that.