[Fox Business] Former OpenAI board member reveals why Sam Altman was ousted last November

Former OpenAI board member Helen Toner shared new details about the ouster of CEO Sam Altman, who was subsequently rehired with a new board in place, in an interview on Tuesday.

Members of OpenAI’s former board, including Toner, fired Altman in November and wrote that he was not “consistently candid in his communications” with board members, which hindered the board’s ability to carry out its duties. After an employee revolt demanding Altman’s reinstatement, three members of the old board resigned which, in turn, cleared the way for Altman to return to OpenAI as CEO.

Toner said in an interview on The TED AI Show that Altman’s behavior made it difficult for OpenAI’s uniquely-structured non-profit board to carry out its purpose of “making sure that the company’s public good mission was primary, was coming first over profits, investor interests and other things.”

“For years, Sam had made it really difficult for the board to actually do that job by withholding information, misrepresenting things that were happening at the company, in some cases outright lying to the board,” she explained. Toner is an artificial intelligence (AI) expert who serves a director at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET).

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Toner said that while she can’t share all examples of those issues, she cited the release of ChatGPT in November 2022 and said “the board was not informed in advance of that, we learned about ChatGPT on Twitter.”

“Sam didn’t inform the board that he owned the OpenAI startup fund, even though he constantly was claiming to be an independent board member with no financial interest in the company,” she added. 

“On multiple occasions, he gave us inaccurate information about the small number of formal safety processes that the company did have in place – meaning it was virtually impossible for the board to know how well those safety processes were working, or what might need to change,” Toner explained.

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“After years of this kind of thing, all four of us who fired him came to the conclusion that we just couldn’t believe things that Sam was telling us,” Toner said. “And that’s a completely unworkable place to be as a board – especially a board that is supposed to be providing independent oversight over the company, not just like helping the CEO to raise more money.”

“Not trusting the word of the CEO, who is your main conduit to the company – the main source of information about the company is just totally impossible,” she added. Toner said two executives came to the board to discuss their concerns about their inability to trust Altman and the toxic atmosphere he had created, which she said they referred to as “psychological abuse.” 

She said that while “they’ve since tried to kind of minimize what they’ve told us, but these were not like casual conversations, they were really serious to the point where they actually sent us screenshots and documentation of some of the instances they were telling us about of him lying and being manipulative in different situations.”

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Toner said that Altman’s conduct had “really damaged our ability to trust him” and those dynamics had deteriorated to the point that in October the board was “already talking pretty seriously about whether we needed to fire him.”

She said that the board found that OpenAI employees were “scared” to go against Altman and that those who had experienced retaliation due to their criticism. Those dynamics led the board to fire Altman, which was announced on Nov. 17, 2024.

After Altman’s firing and before his return as CEO, she said it was “very hard for those people who had had terrible experiences to actually say that for fear that if Sam did stay in power, as he ultimately did, that would make their lives miserable.”

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OpenAI referred FOX Business to a statement on the subject by Bret Taylor, chair of the OpenAI board, that was provided on The TED AI Show.

“We are disappointed that Ms. Toner continues to revisit these issues. An independent committee of the board worked with the law firm Wilmer Hale to conduct an extensive review of the events of November. The review concluded that the prior board’s decision was not based on concerns regarding product safety or security, the pace of development, OpenAI’s finances, or its statements to investors, customers, or business partners.”

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“Additionally, over 95% of employees including senior leadership asked for Sam’s reinstatement as CEO and the resignation of the prior board. Our focus remains on moving forward and pursuing OpenAI’s mission to ensure AGI benefits all of humanity,” the statement concluded.

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