BOGOTA, Colombia -- One of the hemisphere’s most contentious and longest-running environmental trials is going on trial. On Tuesday, a New York judge will begin hearing testimony that a $19 billion judgment against Chevron for polluting Ecuador’s Amazon decades ago was the product of fraud.
The oil giant claims that Steven Donziger, a lawyer for the Ecuadorean plaintiffs, engaged in racketeering by manufacturing evidence and bribing judges in the Andean nation to win the record-setting verdict.
Donziger and his legal team say Chevron is trying to evade its responsibility. Since it couldn’t win the pollution trial on its merits, they say, it’s going after the lawyers.
The case has dragged on — in one form or another — for 20 years, has produced more than 200,000 pages of evidence, spawned documentaries and television programs, and dragged celebrities and politicians into its wake. Movie star Daryl Hannah has dipped her hands into oily muck for the cameras, and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has called the case a matter of national honor and asked for a Chevron boycott.
Both sides have accused their rivals of lying and cheating to make their case. But this time, it’s the Ecuadorean team that’s on the defensive.
At the New York bench trial, Chevron is expected to present a raft of sworn testimony it says proves Donziger gamed the Ecuadorean courts.
Among that evidence: testimony from Stratus Consulting, a Colorado-based environmental engineering firm hired by Donziger’s team. In a March deposition, Stratus Executive Vice President Douglas Beltman said his company wrote the damning environmental report that was passed off as being the work of Richard Cabrera, the “independent expert” appointed by the Ecuadorean judges. To give that study more credence, Stratus then provided third-party commentary supporting the document’s claims.
In the testimony, Beltman says he was following Donziger’s instructions when he lied about the origins of the report to journalists, the lawsuits’ financial backers and U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, who visited the country on a fact-finding trip. He also said he could no longer stand behind the study’s findings, or his commentary, because of Donziger’s influence. Beltman said he was instructed not to make a distinction between oil contamination that could be attributed to Chevron’s predecessor, Texaco subsidiary TexPet, and its majority partner, state-run Petroecuador. He also said Donziger asked him to inflate the cost of repairing the damage.
Donziger’s team says the issue is moot. In his Feb. 14, 2011 ruling, Ecuadorean Judge Nicolás Zambrano threw out the tainted Cabrera report. Even so, he said there was sufficient evidence to find Chevron liable. He ordered the company to pay $8.6 billion plus 10 percent to an environmental non-profit. When Chevron refused to apologize within 15 days, the fine was doubled.
Donziger said Chevron’s true aim behind this case is to strong-arm his supporters.
“Chevron [is using] the case for publicity purposes to try to intimidate people into not working for us,” Donziger said. “When you allege RICO or racketeering violations, it’s a very explosive charge that almost can paralyze or terrorize people into not wanting to help the Ecuadoreans.”