“Today's sentencing of human rights lawyer Steven Donziger should be front-page news ringing alarm bells anywhere people are concerned about democracy, abuses of corporate power, and the rule of law. The real crime here is the death and disease resulting from Chevron's poisoning of the drinking water of thousands of Indigenous people. The court's continued willingness to go along with Chevron's corrupt manipulation of the legal system to silence a successful Indigenous rights advocate holds chilling implications for all of us working to address the climate crisis and resist corporate exploitation.” Ginger Cassidy of the Rainforest Action Network
Chevron, a 260 billion dollar company, prosecuted a federal criminal case against an indigenous rights activist in a years-long vendetta against him after winning a 9.5 billion dollar judgment against the oil giant in 2011.
U.S. federal judge Loretta Preska, a radical right-wing judge, once considered for a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy by George W Bush, will sentence Steven Donziger to federal prison after she found him guilty of contempt of court. There was no jury for the human rights attorney, and Preska will condemn him to the maximum prison sentence of six months in a federal penitentiary. Donzinger had already served a two-year home confinement sentence and will not go to prison for the contempt charge as the appeals process plays out.
The case appears to be retaliation by the judge after United Nations experts found his two-year sentence to violate international human rights law. The billion dollars judgment was to be paid to the indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest for a 1700 square mile oil spill that some refer to as the Chernobyl of the Amazon. As James North of The Nation described it, Preska compared “him to a mule who needed to be beaten with a piece of wood before complying.”
The thing is, Chevron confessed to its crimes by dumping 16 billion gallons of toxic oil waste in the Amazon under its Texaco brand. The indigenous people lost their drinking water, the wildlife was poisoned, and is dangerous to consume.
The fossil fuel industry needs to die. The struggle continues for climate justice.
You can’t understand this latest injustice without looking back at Chevron’s long campaign against Donziger, who won a landmark pollution case against the oil giant in Ecuadorian courts in 2013. Chevron was ordered to spend $9.5 billion to clean up a contaminated area the size of Rhode Island, and to pay for the health care of the 30,000 plaintiffs whose communities have seen a rising number of cancer cases. Instead of following the legal order, Chevron launched a case in New York, and in 2014, a federal judge, Lewis Kaplan, found Donziger and some of his Ecuadorian allies civilly liable for racketeering, bribery, and fraud. Then, Kaplan asked the federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York to put Donziger on trial for “criminal contempt” connected to the original conviction. The federal prosecutor refused, so Kaplan handpicked an attorney from a private firm, Rita Glavin, to prosecute—a nearly unprecedented legal maneuver.
As Chevron’s vendetta continued, international outrage grew. Just before sentencing, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued an opinion in Donziger’s favor, ruling that his two years of house arrest was illegal under international law and that he had been denied the right to a fair trial. A panel of five prominent jurists called that confinement “arbitrary” and said that both judges, Kaplan and Preska, had shown “a staggering lack of objectivity and impartiality.” In court, Preska briefly acknowledged the UN findings only to dismiss them.
This case highlights not only the power of the fossil fuel industry in the halls of Congress and the White House but now, over the United States judiciary.
Back in 1993, Donziger, fresh out of Harvard Law School, joined an ongoing fight for environmental justice. The struggle against Texaco, which was taken over by Chevron in 2001, began in the late 1980s in eastern Ecuador, where the oil company drilled and operated wells from 1972 to 1992. Texaco had disposed of its drilling wastes by methods that in some cases would have been illegal in the United States. (More details are here.) Local people began organizing against the pollution in their rivers and streams and in oil-soaked stretches of their land. The case started in the New York federal courts, but then a judge ordered it sent back to Ecuador—a move that Chevron’s lawyers welcomed at the time. So, in 2003, the legal battle re opened in the eastern oil frontier town of Lago Agrio. Donziger and the codefendants expected they would face a jury, but at the last minute, Chevron dropped its demand for financial damages. Under RICO law, this meant the defendants lost their right to a jury, and Kaplan alone would decide the case.
Donziger’s supporters objected to Kaplan’s pro-corporate statements and hostility toward the human rights lawyer during the RICO trial. Kaplan is a career corporate lawyer turned judge, with no experience in Ecuador or anywhere else in the Global South. Yet he decided which witnesses to believe and which to disregard—and in 2014 he found Donziger and the others guilty.
Only a corporation like Chevron worth billions could have financed such a prosecution. The oil giant paid for a disgraced former judge named Alberto Guerra and his family to move to the United States. Chevron’s lawyers rehearsed Guerra’s testimony with him 53 times before he went on the witness stand, where Guerra claimed that Donziger and an Ecuadorian lawyer had offered him a $500,000 bribe and that the pair had ghostwritten the final judgment against Chevron. Donziger and his defense team estimate that Chevron has spent $2 billion on legal fees and other costs. (Chevron’s designated spokesman, James Craig, declined to give the corporation’s own figure for how much it has spent on the case. Craig also declined to say if Chevron is still paying Guerra or if he is still living in the United States.)
The case went through three levels of the Ecuadorian courts. The appeals by Chevron were exhausted, and they affirmed Chevron's guilt. With help from the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), Chevron instigated a counterattack in N.Y., charging the rainforest defender with bribery and fraud because he won the case in Ecuador.
Esquire wrote about Judge Kaplan and his role in the RICO case.
Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, a former corporate lawyer whose clients included tobacco companies, became Donziger's judge-and-jury in the RICO case. He heard from 31 witnesses, but based his ruling in significant part on the testimony of Albert Guerra, a former Ecuadorian judge whom Chevron relocated to the U.S. at an overall cost of $2 million. Guerra alleged there was a bribe involved in the Ecuadorian court's judgement against Chevron. He has since retracted some of his testimony, admitting it was false.
But Kaplan, who refused to look at the scientific evidence in the original case, ruled the initial verdict was the result of fraud. And he didn't stop there. He ordered Donziger to pay millions in attorneys fees to Chevron and eventually ordered him to turn over decades of client communications, even going after his phone and computer. Donziger considered this a threat to attorney-client privilege and appealed the ruling, but while that appeal was pending, Kaplan slapped him with a contempt of court charge for refusing to give up the devices. When the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York declined to prosecute the case, Kaplan took the extraordinary step of appointing a private law firm to prosecute Donziger in the name of the U.S. government. The firm, Seward & Kissel, has had a number of oil-and-gas clients, including, in 2018… Chevron. Kaplan bypassed the usual random case-assignment procedure of the federal judiciary and handpicked a judge to hear the contempt case: Loretta Preska, a member of the Federalist Society, among whose major donors is… Chevron. Preska has, like Kaplan, rejected Donziger's requests to have his trial heard by a jury of his peers. Both judges declined Esquire's request for comment on Donziger's cases, citing court policy.
Ecuador's judgment of 9.5 billion still stands, but Chevron removed all assets from Ecuador. Kaplan, the other Federal judge, working in cahoots with Chevron, prohibited the forest dwellers from collecting any funds from the holdings now banked in the United States.
Chevron is headquartered in California and will likely face a boycott from the CalPERS, the retirement fund for government workers and teachers in California. Turning the rock over and examining Chevron scurrying for cover will likely lead to a backlash for the climate criminals at Chevron.