The Work

September 11, 2009 5:59 PM

Plaintiff's Lawyer in Chevron Environmental Lawsuit Speaks Out

Posted by Irene Plagianos

Steven Donziger knew pursuing a multibillion-dollar lawsuit against Chevron-Texaco wouldn't be easy. A Harvard Law grad and former Washington, D.C., public defender, Donziger is the lead U.S. lawyer for 30,000 Ecuadorians who claim oil drilling by Texaco (now owned by Chevron) polluted portions of the country's Amazon Basin, contaminating the soil and water sources where they live.

The lawsuit, filed in 1993, has had many complicated twists. Most recently, the Ecuadorian trial judge recused himself last week after Chevron released videotapes that allegedly implicate him in a bribery scheme. The oil company claims the videos show Judge Juan Nunez declaring Chevron's guilt, even though he has not yet issued a public ruling.

Chevron also claims the videos show an Ecuadorian ruling party official offering to take $3 million in bribes in exchange for awarding environmental cleanup contracts to two businessmen after Nunez ruled against Chevron. Judge Nunez claims the tapes were manipulated through editing and that he did nothing wrong.

Despite the sideshow, the trial continues in Lago Agrio, the Ecuadorian town in the Amazon where Texaco once drilled for oil. Before Judge Nunez took over the case in August 2008, an environmental expert appointed by the previous judge had recommended a judgment against Chevron for $27 billion. Judge Nunez had been reviewing thousands of pages of evidence to decide whether to approve the expert's recommendation.

The Am Law Daily recently spoke with Donziger about Chevron's latest allegations, Judge Nunez's recusal, and whether there's an end in sight.

When did you learn of the bribery allegations against the judge?

I was first alerted when Chevron released the videotapes to the media on August 31. Chevron never exercised the courtesy of contacting our lawyers, even though you'd think we have a mutual interest in preserving the integrity of the trial process.

What's your reaction to the purported meetings captured on the videotapes?

The allegations have to be taken seriously and need to be investigated. But it raises as many questions about Chevron as it does about anything the judge did, such as whether Chevron was involved in setting up a dirty tricks operation to undermine a trial with such a substantial judgment.

What do you mean by a "dirty tricks operation"?

Chevron's version of events doesn't add up. First, why did they wait three months to release this information? Second, there's no evidence on the tapes that the judge was involved in a bribery scheme even though they spun it that way to the press. Third, Chevron was supposedly given these tapes by one of their own contractors, but the only meeting where a bribe was discussed was the final meeting, after Chevron had already gotten the videotapes. That raises the question of whether Chevron was involved in trying to script that final meeting to make it appear as though there was a bribery scheme.

Does the judge's recusal help or hurt your efforts?

The judge's recusal helps because it allows the trial to proceed and focus on the evidence, which is where the focus should be. Regardless of what Chevron is trying to argue, all the evidence came in before Nunez began presiding over the trial. So his recusal will have minimal impact. But I do think it's allowed Chevron to engage in a game of smoke and mirrors that distracts people from the core issues, which has been their strategy all along.

Considering there are no jury trials in Ecuador, and that a new judge takes over a case every two years and has to review the evidence all over again, it seems a trial in the U.S. would be more stable. Has there been any attempt to get this case back in the states?

This case was originally filed in U.S. federal court in 1993. Texaco submitted 14 expert affidavits praising Ecuador's courts and used that as a basis to move the case to Ecuador over our objections. They succeeded, so we refiled the case in Ecuador. The trial started and as the evidence came in, Chevron realized they would be found culpable and started attacking the court they had previously praised. For now, nobody's trying to move it to the United States. Not Chevron, not us. What we want is for the trial that Chevron wanted to take place in Ecuador to finish in accordance with the law.

What's your next step now that a new judge has taken over and proceedings have resumed?

The primary objective is to reach a determination of whether Chevron is liable for damages. It's unclear to us at this point how long it will take to reach a conclusion, but according to Ecuadorian law, it should happen in the next several months.

NOTE: Steven Donziger is featured in a documentary about the protracted legal battle in Aguinda v. ChevronTexaco. Crude, directed by Joe Berlinger, opened on Sept. 9 in New York; the film will be released in Los Angeles on Sept. 18.

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