Chevron's lobby campaign backfires
By: Kenneth P. Vogel
November 16, 2009 04:58 AM EST
Facing the possibility of a $27 billion pollution judgment against it in an Ecuadorean court, Chevron launched an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign to try to prevent the judgment as well as reverse a deeply damaging story line.
Chevron's tactics — ranging from quietly trying to wield U.S. trade policy to compel Ecuador's government to squelch the case, to producing a pseudo-news report casting the company as the victim of a corrupt Ecuadorean political system — were designed to win powerful allies in Congress and the Obama administration as well as to shape public opinion and calm shareholders.
But many of the company's moves have backfired, drawing fire from environmentalists, media ethicists, state pension funds, New York's attorney general, members of Congress and even Barack Obama when he was a senator.
"Their lobbying and PR efforts are really clumsy and very heavy handed, and I think that that's why they're experiencing a degree of backlash," said Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), who is circulating the first of what she promises will be three letters to colleagues blasting what she calls the company's "misguided approach" to dealing with the case.
The case stems from a class action suit brought by well-connected U.S. trial lawyers on behalf of 30,000 Ecuadoreans alleging that from 1964 to 1990, Texaco — which was purchased by Chevron in 2001 — dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste into Ecuador's Amazon rain forest, leaving behind an unprecedented environmental and public health disaster including a wave of cancers, birth defects and miscarriages.
Chevron has been pushing the U.S. government to revise Ecuador's trade preferences since soon after the lawsuit was filed in Ecuador in 2003 (it originally had been in U.S. federal court in 1993). But with a years-long trial in a tiny courtroom in the Ecuadorean rain forest expected to culminate in a ruling early next year, Chevron has turned up the heat, arguing that it can't get a fair trial in Ecuador, an assertion that Sanchez and other Chevron critics point out seems to conflict with the company's previous efforts to move the trial from U.S. courts to Ecuador.
In part, Chevron wants the office of U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, as well as Congress, to revoke the preferential treatment Ecuador gets for its oil exports under the 1991 Andean Trade Preferences Act, unless the country enforces an agreement it entered into with Texaco in the mid-1990s, under which the company paid for a three-year, $40 million cleanup and was relieved of liability. The plaintiffs contend that Chevron botched the cleanup, but if the court were to recognize the agreement, it could essentially end the suit.
"When a government is in violation of its contractual obligations to a company, there are only a few avenues a company has to seek resolution," Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson said in explaining his firm's lobbying over the trade preferences. "If we were able to call a timeout and make the lawsuit disappear, then this entire issue disappears," he added.
Chevron says its lobbying campaign — which has included more than $1.6 million in fees this year to a bipartisan roster of Washington heavyweights including Democrats Mickey Kantor, a former U.S. trade representative; Mack McLarty, a former White House chief of staff; and former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.); as well as big-time GOP bundler Wayne Berman — is not at all unusual.
Advocates for the plaintiffs, whose suit is financed by a Philadelphia law firm, have rallied their own impressive response in Washington. Led by Steven Donziger, a New York-based lawyer who was a Harvard Law School classmate of Obama, it includes Democratic fundraiser and lobbyist Ben Barnes; Tom Downey, a former Democratic congressman who is married to Obama climate czar Carol Browner and who recently registered to lobby Congress for Donziger; and public relations consultant Karen Hinton. The team has helped persuade a number of influential members of Congress to sign on to letters urging Kirk to reject Chevron's efforts.
In 2006, after multiple visits from Donziger, then-Sen. Obama joined with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in signing a letter to then-U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, asking him "not to interfere in the Chevron case" and asserting that the Ecuadoreans "deserve their day in court."
Robertson rejected the suggestion that the company's lobbying had backfired, pointing to a report Obama transmitted to Congress this summer that allowed the preferences to continue but referenced Chevron's concerns about the trial, including the company's allegations of interference by Ecuadorean officials up to and including President Rafael Correa.
In an interview, Sanchez, who will testify Tuesday at a hearing her House Ways and Means subcommittee is scheduled to hold on free trade agreements, said Chevron is "trying to leverage our trade policy in order to get a lawsuit dismissed that is currently pending before the Ecuadorean court. It is a way of trying to undermine the rule of law, and I just find that completely abhorrent. It's shocking."
This summer, Chevron thought it had made major progress toward proving its point that it could not receive a fair trial in Ecuador, when it revealed that it had obtained videos — purportedly taped secretly by a pair of whistleblowers using recorders implanted in watches and pens — that the company said exposed a bribery scheme in the case involving Ecuadorean officials and possibly the judge in the case. The company turned the recordings over to authorities in the U.S. and Ecuador and circulated excerpts of the recordings on Capitol Hill. The judge recused himself.
But late last month, Hinton — who is paid by the Philadelphia law firm financing the suit to advocate on behalf of a nonprofit called the Amazon Defense Coalition — released a report revealing that the American who helped make the recordings was a convicted drug trafficker, while his Ecuadorean partner was a Chevron contractor.
Robertson called the report "character assignation" and said it "doesn't change what was caught on film. We have a judge who is corrupt. … We're not measuring the release of the videos as success or failure."
He did count as a success, though, the fact that Chevron shareholders in May, after a letter-writing campaign by the company, voted down a resolution citing the lawsuit and calling on the company to examine whether it complies with host country laws and environmental regulations.
Nonetheless, state pension funds that hold a combined $1 billion in Chevron shares have expressed concern about how the company plans to handle a potentially huge adverse judgment in the case. And in a May letter demanding more information from Chevron, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said he had recently "received complaints regarding Chevron's disclosures of the potential litigation risks and Chevron's characterization of available legal defenses."
Chevron also got dinged for a curious PR effort back in April, when — after catching wind that CBS's "60 Minutes" was preparing a damaging report about its handling of the Ecuador case — it released a video it paid for featuring former CNN reporter Gene Randall delivering what looked like a news report giving Chevron's side of the story.
Posted on YouTube and the company's website and bearing the logo "Gene Randall reporting," the report was produced with help from the conservative Beltway consulting firm CRC Public Relations. It cast Ecuador's politicians as out to get Chevron and blamed the pollution on Ecuador's state-owned oil company, which took over Texaco's operations.
Columbia Journalism Review assailed the report as "deceptive" and posited that it "might be unprecedented for how it blurred the line between public relations and journalism."
Chevron's Robertson said Hinton and the lawyers in the case are "trying to take Chevron's reputation hostage and to ransom it back to us" for a settlement. "So getting our side of the story out there is important."
Robertson also said Hinton and her allies are in a bit of a "glass houses situation" when it comes to alleging sneaky techniques. He pointed out that Hinton's group paid a private investigator to expose the background of the video maker, that a group linked to Hinton's issued press releases insinuating that the murder of a brother of one of the plaintiff's lawyers may be linked to the case (though the lawyer initially told the police otherwise) and that Hinton's own husband, Howard Glaser, a financial services industry analyst, late last month posted an item bashing Chevron on The Huffington Post — to which he is a contributor — without noting their marriage.
Hinton asserted her side's tactics have been above board, adding that, though "no one knows who murdered [the lawyer's] brother," the killing came at a time when the lawyer "and other members of the plaintiffs' legal team had received a number of anonymous death threats connected to the work on the case."
Meanwhile, even the addendum Hinton's husband posted at the request of Chevron noting his wife's relationship to the case somehow seemed to ricochet against Chevron.
"My spouse works with the indigenous people of Ecuador who are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Chevron for the massive pollution the company left behind in the rain forest," he wrote. "While Chevron conducts a multimillion-dollar media spin campaign to paint themselves as the environmental 'good guys,' said spouse working out of her house with her two cats and cell phone appears to have gotten under Chevron's corporate skin."