Chevron Trying To “Totally Destroy” Environmental Lawyer Who Defeated Them In Court: Report
“Chevron is using its limitless resources to crush defendants and win this case through might rather than merit.”
Chevron is waging a scorched earth legal campaign against the environmental lawyer who won a multi-billion suit against the company on behalf of some 30,000 Ecuadorans who claim that the fossil fuel giant knowingly dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic waste water in the Amazon rain forest, causing cancer and birth defects in what has been dubbed “Amazon Chernobyl.” The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner spoke with the lawyer, Steven Donziger, in a report published Wednesday about the ability of corporate power to override legal norms and the future of environmental litigation.
Donziger has been involved in the case since 1993, when he and other lawyers filed a class action lawsuit against Texaco for causing enormous contamination in the Amazon. Chevron, who bought Texaco in 2001, denied culpability in the case and moved its assets out of Ecuador after an Ecuadorian court ordered the company to pay $18 billion in compensation in 2011, a charge that was later reduced to $9.5 billion.
Chevron then filed a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) against Donziger, in which a single judge, Lewis A. Kaplan, decided the Ecuadoran court’s ruling (which was upheld by the country’s Supreme Court) was invalid and ruled Donziger guilty of extortion and a host of other crimes.
Lerner describes how Chevron’s attacks against the environmental lawyer have upended his life:
“As he was arguing the case against Chevron in Ecuador back in 2009, the company expressly said its long-term strategy was to demonize him. And since then, Chevron has continued its all-out assault on Donziger in what’s become one of the most bitter and drawn-out cases in the history of environmental law. Chevron has hired private investigators to track Donziger, created a publication to smear him, and put together a legal team of hundreds of lawyers from 60 firms, who have successfully pursued an extraordinary campaign against him.
“As a result, Donziger has been disbarred and his bank accounts have been frozen. He now has a lien on his apartment, faces exorbitant fines, and has been prohibited from earning money. As of August, a court has seized his passport and put him on house arrest. Chevron, which has a market capitalization of $228 billion, has the funds to continue targeting Donziger for as long as it chooses.”
“I’m like a corporate political prisoner,” Donziger told Lerner. “They are trying to totally destroy me.”
Lerner notes that several legal scholars consider Kaplan’s ruling to be influenced by his bias in favor of Chevron, which he has described as “a company of considerable importance to our economy that employs thousands all over the world, that supplies a group of commodities, gasoline, heating oil, other fuels, and lubricants on which every one of us depends every single day.”
“It was obvious throughout that Judge Kaplan conducted a show trial where he served as a prosecutor for Chevron and judge at the same time,” Javier Piaguaje, a leader of a coalition of villagers that won the judgment against Chevron in Ecuador and a defendant in the U.S. case, told Amazon Watch in 2014. “The fact he had investments in Chevron and never told us is more brazen than what I could have imagined,” said Piaguaje, referring to Kaplan’s investments in three J.P. Morgan funds that had holdings in Chevron that the judge had failed to disclose.
“In another legal peculiarity, in July, Kaplan appointed a private law firm to prosecute Donziger, after the Southern District of New York declined to do so — a move that is virtually unprecedented. And, as Donziger’s lawyer has pointed out, the firm Kaplan chose, Seward & Kissel, likely has ties to Chevron,” reported Lerner. Lerner notes that Kaplan also inappropriately selected Judge Loretta Preska, the judge who ordered the seizure of Donziger’s passport and sentenced him to house arrest despite his consistent record of appearing in court, to provide oversight over the private law firm he chose to prosecute the environmental lawyer.
“Chevron is using its limitless resources to crush defendants and win this case through might rather than merit,” Donziger’s former lawyer John Keker told Lerner.
Kaplan centered his entire ruling against Donziger on the single testimony of Ecuadoran judge Alberto Guerra, who claimed that Donziger had bribed him and that the decision against Chevron was ghostwritten. Controversially, Chevron paid Guerra hundreds of thousands of dollars, moved him and and his family to the United States with legal immigration status, prepped him for the case over 50 times, and gave him a monthly stipend 20 times greater than his pay in Ecuador. Guerra later confessed to lying in Kaplan’s court about key facts.
Lerner notes that despite its massive campaign against Donziger and Ecuador, Chevron could still be forced to pay the multi-billion dollar fine by a court in another country.
“One of the most effective things climate activists can do right now to change the system would be to not let Chevron get away with polluting in these countries, whether Ecuador, Nigeria, or anywhere,” Rex Weyler, an environmental advocate who co-founded Greenpeace International, told Lerner. Weyler argues that Chevron is acting out of fear of the potential precedent set by being held accountable for its pollution. “If hydrocarbon companies are forced to pay for the true costs of their product, which include these environmental costs, it will make the alternative energy systems more competitive.”