MAGAZINE
Standing up to a global oil giant

Lawyer Steven Donziger faces yet another court appearance in the latest chapter of his long-running battle with Chevron

11 May 2021
BY STEVEN DONZIGER
Chief Robinson, the leader of the Cofan Indians and environmental activist in Ecuador. Photo: Aperture

IN FEBRUARY 2011, a court in Ecuador delivered a historic victory for indigenous and rural communities in that country’s Amazon region: a multi-billion-dollar pollution judgment designed to remedy decades of deliberate toxic dumping by global oil company Chevron on indigenous ancestral lands.

I was a member of the international legal team that obtained the judgment after Chevron had insisted the trial take place in Ecuador. Since then, I have been targeted by the company with what can only be described as a vicious retaliation campaign against me and my family – a campaign designed to silence my advocacy and intimidate other human rights lawyers who might think of taking on the fossil fuel giants.

The evidence against Chevron, as found by Ecuador’s courts, was overwhelming. It consisted of 64,000 chemical sampling results reporting extensive oil pollution at hundreds of oil production sites. Billions of gallons of toxic “produced water” were deliberately discharged into rivers and streams that locals relied on for their drinking water, fishing and bathing. Cancer rates in the region have spiked dramatically.

One experienced engineer who had worked on oil operations in dozens of countries told an energy journalist it was the worst oil pollution he had ever seen. When the indigenous people complained, the company’s engineers told them that oil was like milk and that it contained vitamins.

At the time we won the judgment, I was living in Manhattan with my wife and young son in a small apartment. I was travelling to Ecuador on a monthly basis to help the affected communities while maintaining a small law practice.

To keep the litigation going, I helped my clients raise significant funds from supporters and I helped recruit and manage attorneys from around the world who were preparing to enforce the winning judgment. Enforcement of the judgment became necessary after Chevron vowed never to pay and threatened the indigenous peoples who won the case with a “lifetime of litigation” unless they dropped their claims.

Chevron’s counterattack targeting me came swiftly. In 2009, the company had hired a new law firm that broadly advertised a “kill step” strategy to help rescue corporations plagued by scandal from legal liabilities. This primarily involved accusing the lawyers who won a judgment against the firm’s client of “fraud” to distract attention from the company’s wrongdoing. The ultimate goal was to drive lawyers off the case by demonising them and making life so uncomfortable that their careers were at risk; under such a scenario, the victims of the company’s pollution would be left defenceless.

In my case, Chevron lawyers sued me under a civil “racketeering” statute – accusing me of authorising the bribing of a judge in Ecuador. This is something I have not done, nor would I ever do.

The civil lawsuit was crafted by the Chevron lawyers to read like a criminal indictment. When it was filed in New York in 2011, my life was turned upside down. The company claimed the entire case I had been working on in Ecuador since 1993 was “sham” litigation even though Ecuador’s courts had validated the pollution judgment based on voluminous scientific evidence. Chevron also sued me for $60 billion, the largest potential personal liability in US history. When I refused to give up, the company convinced a US judge in 2018 to charge me with criminal contempt of court for appealing an order that I turn over my electronic devices, passwords and confidential case file to the company.

At the time of writing, I have been under house arrest in Manhattan for roughly 600 days on a petty charge that carries a maximum sentence of just 180 days in prison. I am being prosecuted by a Chevron law firm in the name of the public after the charges were rejected by the regular federal prosecutor.

To monitor my whereabouts on a 24/7 basis, the court shackled my left ankle with a GPS monitor. It never comes off — I sleep with it, eat with it and shower with it. It often beeps in the middle of the night when the battery runs low.

In all, Chevron has used the US court system to subject me over the past 10 years to multiple attacks:

  • Chevron paid an Ecuadorian witness at least $2 million. It also flew him and his entire family to the USA where they were settled in a new house. Chevron lawyers then coached this person for 53 days to be its star witness. He testified I approved a bribe of the trial judge in Ecuador. This was the “kill step” in action: I was falsely being accused of a crime to ruin my career and remove me from the case. The witness later recanted much of his testimony, but the judge in the case denied me a jury of my peers and used the testimony to rule the Ecuador judgment was obtained by fraud and that I could not collect my legal fee.

  • Chevron used these so-called findings of fact – findings contradicted by six appellate courts in Ecuador and Canada that rejected the company’s false evidence – to orchestrate the suspension of my licence in New York without a hearing. I later won my post-suspension hearing; the case is currently on appeal.

  • Chevron launched a series of financial attacks against me and my family. Even though the company had denied me a jury (required by law in damages cases), the judge allowed Chevron to impose draconian financial penalties on me to “repay” the company for some of the legal fees it used to prosecute me. The judge also imposed billions of dollars of fines on me for supposedly failing to comply with discovery orders that I had appealed. He also authorised the company to freeze my personal accounts and take my life savings.

  • In the ultimate coup de grace, Chevron convinced the judge to essentially block me from working on the case by issuing an injunction preventing me from helping my clients raise investment funds to help enforce the judgment against Chevron’s assets. The cold reality is that Chevron, which grosses about $250 billion a year, is free to spend what it wants to block enforcement actions brought by the Ecuadorian communities. The indigenous people of Ecuador,nmost of whom cannot afford even bottled water, are barred by US courts from raising money to enforce their judgment. The US court did say they could receive “donations”, which will never be enough to cover the costs.

  • In any criminal contempt case, no person charged with a petty crime in the federal system has served even one day’s pre-trial in-home detention; I have served almost two years without trial.

My trial on the six criminal contempt counts is scheduled for 10 May. All the counts relate to legitimate discovery disputes I had with Chevron that I was litigating at the time the judge charged me criminally. At the time, I was in Canada helping lawyers there enforce the Ecuador judgment.

I am a human rights lawyer who has received significant public support, including from 55 Nobel laureates who have demanded dismissal of the criminal case and my release. Thousands of prominent lawyers around the world, including Harvard professor Charles Nesson and legendary civil rights lawyer Martin Garbus, have rallied on my behalf. Courts around the world have validated the judgment I worked years to help secure. Yet Chevron, working through its 60 law firms and hundreds of lawyers, has effectively weaponised the judicial system in service of its interests to nullify my ability to fully function as an advocate. This has happened in retaliation for our success, not because of any errors along the way.

The victims of this new corporate playbook are the people of Ecuador; its higher purpose is to protect a fossil fuel industry that is destroying our planet from being held accountable under the law. The racketeering is the conspiracy organised by Chevron and its allies not only to “win” the case and extinguish the company’s liability but also to kill off the idea that this type of environmental human rights case can happen again. It is critical that environmental justice lawyers, campaigners and all who believe in free speech stand up for the important principles so central to the proper functioning of a free society that are contained in this saga.

INDEX looks at how Texaco and Chevron became involved in Ecuador and the twists and turns of Steven Donziger’s campaign to get compensation for local people

1964: Texaco begin oil exploration and drilling in Ecuador.

1992: Texaco hand over full control of the oil operation in the country to state-owned oil company PetroEcuador.

1993: Steven Donziger and his team file a suit against Texaco in New York, but Texaco successfully lobby to have the case heard in Ecuador.

1995: A settlement agreement is reached and Texaco agree to help with the clean-up of toxic waste.

1998: The clean-up costs $40 million and Ecuador releases another agreement stating Texaco had met its obligations under the 1998 agreement.

2000: Chevron buy Texaco for around $35 billion.

2003: A US legal team including Steven Donziger sues Texaco on behalf of over 30,000 Ecuadoreans, claiming that between from 1971 to 1992, Texaco dumped four million gallons of toxic wastewater per day.

2011: In February, Chevron sues Donziger and co. under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), alleging extortion.

The original suit, the monetary claims of which were dropped before the trial, saw Chevron seeking $60 billion in damages.

2011: An Ecuadorean court gives a judgment for Chevron to pay $18 billion, which is later raised to $19 billion, to plaintiffs. Chevron appeal the decision.

2013: Ecuador’s Supreme Court upholds the decision but halves the damages to $9.5 billion.

2014: US District Judge Lewis Kaplan rules the decision to be tainted and accuses Donziger of perverting the course of justice. Six other courts rule the decision to be valid. Much of the decision was based on the testimony of former Ecuador judge Alberto Guerra, who claimed there was bribery involved in the 2011 judgement. Parts of this testimony have since been retracted.

2018: Donziger is suspended from practising as an attorney.

2019: Kaplan charges Donziger with contempt of court and orders him to pay $3.4 million in attorney fees.

2020: In August, Donziger is disbarred. 29 Nobel laureates condemn alleged judicial harassment by Chevron.

SEAN COMEY, senior corporate adviser, Chevron Corporation, sent Index this response

Steven Donziger continues to try to shift attention away from the facts. In his own words, “we need to make facts that help us and the facts we need don’t always exist”.

The facts are that Donziger has been disbarred because of a pattern of illegal activity related to the case. Decisions by courts in the USA, Argentina, Brazil, Canada and Gibraltar and an international tribunal in The Hague confirm that the fraudulent Ecuadorian judgment should be unenforceable in any court that respects the rule of law. The US District Court for the Southern District of New York held that the judgment against Chevron was the product of fraud and racketeering, finding it unenforceable in the USA. The court found Donziger violated the US racketeering statute by committing extortion, wire fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations. The judgment is final after been unanimously affirmed by the Court of Appeals and denied review by the Supreme Court.

Even the government of Ecuador now acknowledges the judgment was based on fraud. The international Bilateral Investment Treaty tribunal in The Hague – including an arbitrator appointed by the Ecuadorian government – unanimously ruled the Ecuadorian judgment was based on fraud, bribery and corruption, and rejected the environmental allegations against Chevron, ruling those claims were settled and released by the Republic of Ecuador decades ago following an environmental remediation supervised and approved by the government.

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