Racketeering case filed by Chevron against lawyer who won $18B enviro award goes to trial
Having won an $18 billion environmental judgment against a deep-pockets corporate defendant after nearly two decades of litigation, attorney Steven Donziger, one might think, would be living high on the hog.
Instead, the Harvard Law School graduate is a defendant in a civil racketeering trial brought by Chevron Corp. Trial began this week in federal court in New York.
Rather than pay the judgment awarded by an Ecuadorean court, the oil company fought back. Donziger and his team, Chevron contends, obtained the $18 billion verdict by fraud. Donziger headed a “racketeering enterprise,” Chevron says, that included two additional lawyers, environmental activists, two plaintiffs in the underlying case and others, according to Bloomberg.
Among the evidence that may be used against him in the Manhattan trial are outtakes from Crude, a 2009 documentary film about the case. An Ecuadorean judge who ruled in favor of his clients is expected to testify in Donziger’s favor. However, Chevron lawyer Randy Mastro said that another Ecuadorean judge will testify on Chevron’s behalf.
Attorney Ralph Friedman denied in court that Donziger had done anything wrong and portrayed his client’s work on behalf of those who said they were harmed by environmental pollution as worthy of praise rather than blame. Donziger, said Friedman, is comparable to consumer advocate Ralph Nader and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a trial lawyer before he took the bench.
“It wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t bribery,” said Friedman of Donziger’s work. “He’s changed the way people think. He’s here today because of that judgment.”
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) prior to trial, Donziger himself also said that he had violated no laws and that Chevron had taken what were at most errors and blown them out of proportion.
Friedman also contended that Chevron, at the same time it accuses Donziger of improper activities, has engaged in conduct in Ecuador similar to what it complains opposing counsel has done. Donziger filed counterclaims against Chevron, but they were dismissed in July by U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan. Donziger’s efforts to recuse the judge for alleged bias were also unsuccessful.
Donziger has represented himself in recent months after reportedly running out of money to pay legal counsel earlier this year. However, Friedman, a Washington state lawyer, and attorney Zoe Littlepage of Houston are helping him with the trial.
Meanwhile, environmental groups say Chevron has spent some $1 billion on legal costs related to the case, putting 2,000 attorneys from 60 top law firms to work, while spending merely $40 million or so on cleaning up the massive contamination at issue, the Washington Times reports.
However, much of the contamination was over activities by Chevron’s partners and predecessors rather than Chevron itself, even if the plaintiffs’ claims are correct.
In opening testimony on Tuesday, Ricardo Reis Veiga, senior managing counsel for Chevron, supplemented his written account of an “unimaginable nightmare” of criminal charges he and a colleague faced in the 1990s over their oversight of an environmental cleanup in the Ecuadorean rainforest, Bloomberg reports. Eventually, the charges were dismissed.
Mastro said Donziger and his team were to blame for such incidents because of a claimed campaign of coercion, extortion, money laundering and bribery of an Ecuadorean judge.
“That’s what Steven Donziger was trying to do against Chevron—coerce a big payday against a big company until the pain went away,” Mastro said. “But Chevron refused. It refused to be extorted and defrauded, and that’s why we’re here today.”
ABAJournal.com: “Doc Film Helped Chevron Subpoena Plaintiffs’ US Legal Files in $113B Ecuador Enviro Case”
ABAJournal.com: “With $1B fee unpaid, plaintiff lawyer who won $18B enviro case is now pro se against Chevron”
Companies & Industries (Bloomberg Businessweek): “Chevron on the Attack: The $19 Billion Trial of the Year Starts Today”
Courthouse News: “Trial to Unravel $19B Pollution Judgment Against Chevron Opens”
Reuters: “Chevron goes to trial in New York over $18 billion Ecuador award”