Thursday, August 29, 2013

Appeals Court to Consider Removing Key U.S. Judge in Chevron-Ecuador Case

A New York appellate court has said it will consider a petition to reassign federal judge Lewis A. Kaplan from an Ecuador environmental case that resulted in a $19 billion judgment against Chevron.

A press release issued today by the DC-based Gowen Group law firm outlines this potentially game-changing legal update in the case. Founding partner Chris Gowen has taken up duties as an adviser to and spokesperson for Steven Donziger, the New York human rights lawyer who has earned the ire of Chevron for his dogged two-decade effort to bring the oil giant to justice for massive pollution and human rights abuses in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

The press release continues:
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has set Sept. 26 for oral argument on the petition to reassign the judge, who has been criticized for unfairly promoting a retaliatory Chevron “fraud” case against Ecuadorians villagers and their U.S. counsel. The reassignment petition, which is based primarily on Judge Kaplan’s refusal to follow prior appellate court orders in the case, can be read here and here.
Judge Lewis A. Kaplan is presiding over a lawsuit brought by Chevron against Donziger, Ecuadorian community leaders and Goldman prize winners Pablo Fajardo and Luis Yanza, as well as dozens of the "named plaintiffs" in the original suit against the oil company. Most of the named plaintiffs are from indigenous communities living in an area of the Ecuadorian Amazon devastated by Chevron's oil pollution. These communities have seen their livelihoods destroyed by pollution, their culture decimated by rainforest destruction, and lost loved ones to cancer and other diseases related to the toxins Chevron has admitted dumping into their environment. But that hasn't stopped Chevron from retaliating, and Judge Kaplan has wondered aloud whether these people even exist.

From the press release:
Judge Kaplan has been accused of bias for calling the Ecuador case a "giant game" invented by lawyers to “fix the balance of payments deficit” of the United States. He also referred to thousands of indigenous Ecuadorians as the "so-called" plaintiffs before imposing an illegal injunction purporting to block the Ecuador judgment from being enforced anywhere in the world. For background, see here and here.

Judge Kaplan’s injunction was reversed unanimously in 2011 by a three-judge appellate panel, dealing a stunning rebuke to Chevron’s primary defense in the case. The current petition for reassignment explains how Kaplan has continued to defy that appellate order by issuing a series of decisions disparaging Ecuador’s judicial system.
Donziger and the other defendants in the Chevron's retaliatory RICO case filed what is called a petition for a writ of mandamus, asking the Appeals Court to remove Kaplan form the case due to the bias he has repeatedly shown towards Chevron.

Amazon Watch's Eye on the Amazon blog writes that Kaplan insinuates that an "important company like Chevron should be guarded from judgment collection efforts that apparently might be acceptable if the company were deemed less vital" and quotes Judge Kaplan from an early court proceeding:
"[W]e are dealing here with a company of considerable otherwise importance to our economy that employs thousands all over the world, that supplies a group of commodities, gasoline, heating oil, other fuels and lubricants on which every one of us depends every single day. I don't think there is anybody in this courtroom who wants to pull his car into a gas station to fill up and finds that there isn't any gas there because these folks have attached it in Singapore or wherever else."
Back to today's press release for comment from Chris Gowen, an adjunct professor at the Washington College of Law who is advising the Ecuadorians and Donziger: “Chevron is desperately suing everybody it can to evade a valid judgment won by the rainforest communities the company has contaminated with toxic waste,” he said. “Chevron’s approach is clearly one of the greatest abuses of the legal system ever.”

Judge Kaplan has made numerous rulings and comments that will likely come under additional scrutiny when oral arguments on the mandamus petition take place in front of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on Sept. 26th.

Already, Chevron has displayed some jitters as the the company's retaliatory lawsuit approaches a trial date. As reported here last week:
In an otherwise routine scheduling conference recently before Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, Gibson Dunn lawyer Randy Mastro suggested the oil giant was prepared to drop all damages claims against the Ecuadorians and their counsel, Steven Donziger, just to avoid a jury trial.
Chevron was hoping that it could get a fraud finding from Judge Kaplan without having a new round of evidence of the company's abuses put under a spotlight before a jury and the public. But with Judge Kaplan under scrutiny himself, he doesn't look inclined to go that route.

It would seem that Judge Kaplan has been one of Chevron's best assets in the company's cynical efforts to evade responsibilty for its disaster in Ecuador.  Should the Appeals Court re-assign him, it would be a huge blow to those efforts.

Stay tuned.

And as always: for background on how Chevron decimated indigenous and farmer communities by dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste in Ecuador’s Amazon, watch this video overview or this 60 Minutes segment, or review this summary of the overwhelming evidence against the company.  Chevron is now fighting a $19 billion judgment against the company.

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Friday, August 23, 2013

Chevron: The NSA of the Corporate World?

For anyone interested in how our national surveillance state and leading U.S. corporations work in lockstep, look no further than what Chevron is doing to spy on the critics of its environmental atrocities and human rights violations in Ecuador.

Yesterday, a Magistrate Judge in San Francisco granted oil giant Chevron access to many years of private email account information from nearly 40 email accounts belonging to human rights and environmental activists, lawyers, and their allies. All have some connection to the people who have held Chevron accountable in the Ecuador litigation. However, sometimes the connection is tenuous at best, as in the case of Australian law professor and journalist Kevin Jon Heller, who blasted Chevron and its lawyers at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher on high profile legal blog Opinio Juris.

While quashing subpoenas for some of the accounts Chevron sought, U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins of the Northern District of California ordered Google and Yahoo! to turn over years of private email account information from dozens of other Yahoo! and Gmail accounts to Chevron. This follows last month's order from Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the Southern District of New York, who ordered Microsoft to turn over private email information from an additional 30 Hotmail accounts.

So if you've already been worrying about who may be snooping on you, add Chevron Corporation to the list.

Chevron has a long history of trying to suppress the First Amendment rights of its critics. CEO John Watson lost his cool and had five such critics arrested at a Chevron shareholder meeting in 2010.  The environmental and human rights group Amazon Watch has been repeatedly harassed and subpoenaed by the company for exercising its constitutional right to call it out publicly for its abuses in Ecuador, but has managed to fight off the oil giant's bullying efforts to access troves of internal documents and communications.

Over the years, Watson and his CEO predecessor David O’Reilly have even repeatedly turned off the microphones of Ecuadorians indigenous leaders and farmers who have come to speak to them at shareholder meetings.

Even if Chevron isn't sweeping up data randomly from millions of people like the NSA, it is indisputable that it is using its vast oil riches to spy on and demand email data from its critics. But if you support the communities in Ecuador who have fought for decades to hold Chevron accountable for its widespread environmental devastation and human rights abuses, you may find yourself on the wrong side of a subpoena.

As Marcia Hofmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said recently:
"Environmental advocates have the right to speak anonymously and travel without their every move and association being exposed to Chevron. These sweeping subpoenas create a chilling effect among those who have spoken out against the oil giant's activities in Ecuador."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and EarthRights International (ERI) provided legal assistance to third parties affected by the Chevron litigation. You can read their motions to quash the subpoenas in the Northern District of California here, and in the Northern District of New York here.

Incredibly, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, who is presiding over and doing his best to promote the retaliatory RICO lawsuit Chevron is pursuing against lead U.S. attorney Steven Donziger and some of the "named plaintiffs" in the lawsuit against Chevron that resulted in a $19 billion judgment against the company, managed to find a way to sit by "special designation" to decide on the enforceability of the Microsoft subpoenas. Donziger and the "named plaintiffs" in the litigation against Chevron have filed a petition with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to have Judge Kaplan removed from the case for bias. In an extraordinary move, the appellate court has set oral argument on the issue for September 26th. If Kaplan gets tossed, Chevron’s strategy would suffer a devastating setback.

As a previous post here at The Chevron Pit notes:
The Second Circuit invited Kaplan to defend himself in light of a petition filed by the Ecuadorians and one of their lawyers, New York attorney Steven Donziger, seeking his reassignment. While most such requests are quickly dismissed, there clearly is something about Judge Kaplan’s behavior that is catching the Second Circuit’s attention.
But while in its fight to evade accountability for its devastation in Ecuador, Chevron may have found a tremendous ally in Judge Kaplan, the lengths to which the oil giant has shown it will go to evade justice is what's truly frightening.

Besides 2,000 legal personnel from 60 law firms, Chevron's efforts to evade justice have been aided by 180 investigators from Kroll, a large global private investigation firm which operates as a sort of private KGB spy service for its corporate clients. Kroll's shady services for Chevron first came to light when a journalist detailed the firm's attempts to bribe her to spy on Chevron critics in Ecuador

And the reality is that we don’t really know what Chevron is doing behind the scenes. Kroll has admitted compiling “20 to 30” reports on Donziger, who along with his family has been followed around Manhattan and put under surveillance by unknown plainclothes operatives.

But now, with its mind-boggling resources and boundless cynicism, the oil behemoth has managed to convince judges in the U.S. to allow the company to go ahead and spy on Chevron critics itself, with the court's blessing.

Critics of the NSA's spying program have pointed out the slippery slope we've been sliding down when it comes to protecting free speech, privacy, and the rights guaranteed by the Constitution in this country.

Chevron gaining access to its critics' private email account information opens up a whole new slope, and it is slippery indeed... oil-slick slippery. Will Big Oil want your info? Or another company you've protested over its dastardly deeds? What will they go after next?

Or whom?

For background on how Chevron decimated indigenous and farmer communities by dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste in Ecuador’s  Amazon, watch this video overview or this 60 Minutes segment, or review this summary of the overwhelming evidence against the company.  Chevron is now fighting a $19 billion judgment against the company.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Chevron Getting the Jitters Over Its RICO Case

Shaky Evidence and Appellate Court Scrutiny Starting to Disrupt Company’s Master Plan

Chevron’s vaunted 114-lawyer “rescue team” at Gibson Dunn seems to be getting the jitters over its upcoming RICO trial in federal court in New York.   
In an otherwise routine scheduling conference recently before Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, Gibson Dunn lawyer Randy Mastro suggested the oil giant was prepared to drop all damages claims against the Ecuadorians and their counsel, Steven Donziger, just to avoid a jury trial.   The company’s “Plan B” appears to be to seek a fraud finding from Judge Kaplan alone -- something the judge does not seem inclined to do, and something that would have little chance of working even if he did.
The fact Chevron is even thinking of this possibility is a huge retreat.  It’s also a strong indication that Chevron believes its billion-dollar investment in the RICO case has suddenly become a high-stakes gamble with far greater risk than CEO John Watson is letting on to shareholders and the financial markets.   A loss in the case via a jury verdict would be disastrous for the company both in the U.S. and in defending enforcement actions targeting its assets in countries around the world. 
If it were to drop the damages claims, Chevron might avoid a civil jury trial which in most cases is only guaranteed to a defendant when money is at stake.  But if Chevron chooses to go down this path, it will be left with virtually nothing to litigate.  It might get a “finding” from the discredited Judge Kaplan, but that will be of little or no use in foreign courts who already see the judge as a vassal of U.S. judicial arrogance.
To be clear: Chevron never thought the RICO case would get this far.  Juries are inherently unpredictable.  For a large corporation like Chevron with a $19 billion liability and the reputations of its senior management team at stake, that’s also terrifying.  Chevron simply cannot afford to lose this case.
Chevron assumed that the small legal team for the Ecuadorians would be ground to a pulp by now.  Or that Judge Kaplan would have found a way to rule in Chevron’s favor on pre-trial motions.  Both strategies have failed.
After being unanimously reversed in 2012 when he tried to block the Ecuador judgment from being enforced anywhere in the world, Judge Kaplan appears anxious to push Chevron’s allegations into the hands of a jury.  (That will come after the judge continues to make evidentiary decisions to rig the trial in Chevron’s favor.  See here and here for a taste of Kaplan’s bias.)  In the end of the day, Judge Kaplan knows any finding he makes alone has little chance of surviving appeal and his own instincts at this point are to protect himself, even if it means Chevron cannot get everything it wants.
Chevron also knows juries tend to follow their gut.  That does not bode well for Chevron’s absurd notion that it is the victim of a global  “racketeering scheme” foisted on it by the very indigenous groups who have had their ancestral lands poisoned by the company’s toxic dumping. This “blame the victim” approach is classic historical revisionism practiced the world over by oppressors and Chevron is no different.  
(For an understanding of the overwhelming evidence against Chevron in Ecuador, see this video, this 60 Minutes segment, and this summary of the evidence relied on by the Ecuador court to find the company liable for both polluting the delicate rainforest ecosystem and for trying to corrupt the trial that held it accountable.)
In 2011, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Judge Kaplan’s illegal injunction purporting to block worldwide enforcement of the Ecuador judgment. Judge Kaplan’s ham-fisted attempt to rescue Chevron from its misdeeds in Ecuador remains a sad example of ugly Americanism at its worst.  See here, and here to get a feel for the international scorn provoked by this short-lived attempt by a U.S. trial judge to control the Ecuador judgment on a global basis.  
Despite this personal setback – no Judge likes to get reversed -- Kaplan does not appear to be the least bit chastened from the experience.  And that’s bad for Chevron because Judge Kaplan’s hubris has put him in serious trouble yet again.
Just last week, the appellate court set oral argument in late September to determine whether Judge Kaplan should be removed from the RICO case altogether given his continued defiance of the Second Circuit’s order that he not opine on the validity of the Ecuador judgment.   See here for the latest facts underlying the petition for his removal.  Let’s just say it is serious business whenever a trial court thumbs its nose at an appellate court.  To do it on multiple occasions and blatantly is even more perilous. 
Judge Kaplan encouraged Chevron to bring the RICO action in the first place.  Without his efforts, it likely never would have gotten past first base.  The judge has jerry-rigged the evidence by repeatedly violating the due process rights of the Ecuadorians and Donziger.  He even has ruled they will not be allowed to present testimony about Chevron’s massive pollution in Ecuador, thus making it virtually impossible to mount a meaningful defense.  Should the case be reassigned to a fair judge, look for Chevron’s claims to lose all traction. 
As for the lawyers, Mr. Donziger and others are still confident.  It was Donziger who recently forced Chevron CEO Watson to testify about Ecuador during a deposition – a shocking risk given that he now could be charged with perjury if it is found that he lied under oath. This industry royal was forced to endure the humiliation of answering live questions posed by a solo practitioner (Donziger) he previously called a “criminal” on earnings calls with investors.  (Chevron has gone to great lengths to keep Watson’s testimony confidential.  When the lies and memory lapses get exposed, Watson will be further embarrassed and the global shareholder campaign against him will pick up even more steam.)
Given these problems, it is understandable why Mastro is nervous about a jury trial.  But there are other reasons.
First, Mastro is known far more as a political fixer than a trial lawyer.  He will fight like a pit bull to avoid ceding the high-profile trial stage to the many more talented lawyers at Gibson Dunn, including his colleagues Theodore Boutrous and former star federal prosecutor Reed Brodsky. Any defendant would want Mastro to lead the Chevron show before a jury.  Let’s hope he hangs in there.
We have seen from previous hearings before Judge Kaplan how Mastro and his sidekick, Andrea Neumann, lack basic courtroom agility and have an off-putting personal style.    Mastro already lost three key appellate arguments in the case and literally was laughed out of court in 2011 when he couldn’t answer the most basic questions when trying to defend Judge Kaplan’s illegal injunction before a three-judge appellate panel.  
Second, Chevron’s witness list reads like a Who’s Who of small-time thugs, criminals, and cartoon characters.  Almost all have agreed to testify because of some combination of bribes or intimidation coming from Chevron headquarters.  While the oil goliath has packaged this testimony for maximum effect in affidavits clearly ghostwritten by its own lawyers (leading to a lot of slanted reporting in its favor), under the klieg lights of trial it is doubtful that any of these people will retain even the slightest veneer of credibility.
Exhibit A is former Ecuador Judge Alberto Guerra Bastides, an admitted con artist who received a suitcase full of cash from Chevron lawyer Andres Rivero in Quito in exchange for favorable testimony.   In a deal negotiated directly by Mastro, Chevron has committed to paying Guerra at least $326,000 or roughly ten times his annual salary.  These payments are a clear violation of the ethical rules.  Given his many credibility problems, it is unclear if Guerra will even take the stand.  If he does, he will help the Ecuadorians more than Chevron.
Exhibit B is Christopher Bogart, the disgraced CEO of the litigation hedge fund Burford Capital.  Bogart helped to fund the legal battle of the Ecuadorian communities until Chevron threatened to add Burford as a RICO defendant.  In a panicked response, Bogart betrayed his clients and engaged in some cowardly double-dealing with Chevron – privately negotiating an exit from the case with Chevron’s lawyers while supporting the Ecuadorian communities publicly.   Bogart even emailed Mastro after the Chevron RICO filing and just weeks after he funded the Ecuadorians:  “Randy – congratulations on a superbly executed campaign!” 
Bogart eventually signed an affidavit to help Chevron where he clearly lied to the court about being “misled” by the Patton Boggs law firm and Donziger (Bogart’s own emails, which are nauseating to read, showed he actually believed the opposite).  See this devastating take-down of Bogart in a court brief filed by Patton Boggs as it seeks to strike his affidavit and impose sanctions against Chevron. It is unclear to us after reading this brief how Bogart will ever again work in the funding business.
(If any investor out there is thinking about Burford as an opportunity, they should read about the lack of ethics displayed by Bogart and another Burford director, Ernest J. Getto.  Since Bogart cannot be trusted to disclose this document – it is nowhere to be found on Burford’s website -- we have decided to post it here.)
Chevron’s other main witnesses have been similarly discredited.  It is now clear that Chevron threatened Douglas Beltman and Ann Maest – former scientific consultants to the Ecuadorians -- with personal bankruptcy and career destruction before they signed affidavits that contradicted prior sworn statements under oath attesting to the company’s responsibility for massive pollution in Ecuador.  []   Beltman and Maest, who since have been fired from their jobs, will have little credibility if they take the stand and try to help Chevron. Expect lawyers for the rainforest communities to call these Chevron witnesses as their own if Mastro gets cold feet.
Chevron’s internal documents suggest the company is hanging itself by its own petard.  When faced with overwhelming scientific evidence of its guilt in Ecuador, Chevron decided to launch a strategy to “demonize” Donziger to distract attention from its own environmental crimes and fraudulent remediation.  This included using six Kroll operatives to spy on Donziger and his family in Manhattan.  How will a jury view a big oil company that tries to cover up its atrocities by demonizing a human rights lawyer who helped hold it accountable?
Chevron also launched a campaign to attack the government of Ecuador and to declare war on its courts even though Chevron fought for years to venue the case there.  A memo by Chevron consultant Sam Singer suggests the company adopt “message themes” that would portray Ecuador as “the next major threat to America” and “as the next Cuban missile crisis in the making.”    This type of overreach actually reflects Chevron’s level of desperation.  The company’s incessant attacks against Ecuador’s popular President, Rafael Correa, have started to alienate almost every oil-producing nation in South America and put the company’s business operations at further risk.
The Singer memo will not sit well with a New York jury either.  Nor will other internal documents that show Chevron tried to bribe judges, pay off Ecuador’s government to illegally quash the case, or ask its employees to engage in obstruction of justice by destroying damning documents about its many oil spills in the Amazon. 
Chevron’s entire strategy with the RICO case has been to obtain a huge judgment that it can then use to offset the enforcement actions (currently pending in Canada, Brazil, and Argentina) where the rainforest communities are targeting company assets.  Chevron has sued Donziger and his clients for upwards of $60 billion, thought to be the largest potential personal liability in U.S. history.  Giving up on that cannot be an easy decision.
Chevron is now caught in a maze of its own creation.   Here is Chevron’s dilemma.  If it takes the case to trial before a jury, the entire house of cards is at risk of falling down.  If it drops the damages claims to avoid a jury, any decision by Judge Kaplan will have little or no impact.   And the court of appeals is watching so closely that Chevron simply cannot expect Kaplan to run roughshod over the Ecuadorians and Donziger as before, even if he is allowed to stay on.
After billing Chevron outrageous sums and making grandiose promises to the world, the pressure is now all on Gibson Dunn.  The firm’s lawyers know a jury is risky business for a major client like Chevron with a proven record of human rights abuses and other corrupt activities in Ecuador. See this gripping photo essay from journalist Lou Dematteis for a sense of the profound human devastation Chevron has caused and that Gibson Dunn with Judge Kaplan’s help is trying to bury.
It would be a personal and professional disaster for Mastro and Chevron General Counsel R. Hewitt Pate to fail to deliver a verdict in the company’s favor.  Watch for more furious maneuvering by Chevron as the October trial date nears.  

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Monday, August 5, 2013

Chevron Knows No Bounds In Ecuador Case, New York Times Article Shows

In a blog on The Huffington Post, the former U.S. spokesperson for the Ecuadorians who won a $19 billion judgment against Chevron for oil contamination argues a recent  New York Times article clearly shows that Chevron knows no bounds in its legal attacks to avoid being held accountable for the destruction it caused in the Ecuadorian rainforest.

Read the blog, written by Karen Hinton, here.

The New York Times article, written by energy reporter Cliff Krauss, is a balanced look at the 20-year-old lawsuit, but neglects to point out some key facts about the case:

1 -- Most importantly, it incorrectly states that the Ecuadorians filed their lawsuit against Texaco, now owned by Chevron, after Texaco entered into a remediation agreement with the Government of Ecuador. They filed their lawsuit in 1993 in a U.S. court. Not long after, Texaco appealed, lobbied, and probably bribed Ecuador's government to get the lawsuit dismissed. It would not and that led to the 1995 remediation agreement, which the U.S. court ignored. Equally important is the fact that the agreement carved out the Ecuadorians' lawsuit, stating that the third-party complaints were not covered by the agreement.

2 -- Chevron has never denied that it has spied and possibly continues to spy on one of the Ecuadorians' attorneys, Steven Donziger, a human rights lawyer whose reputation Chevron is clearly trying to destroy, if not his entire ability to make a living to support his family.

3 -- Chevron charges that the Ecuadorians' lawyers "ghostwrote" an Ecuador court report and two judgments, but have any reporters taken a close look at U.S. Judge Lewis Kaplan's recent rulings on Chevron's fraud countersuit? Kaplan's rulings are only slight re-writes of legal briefs filed by Chevron lawyers. U.S. judges often take arguments written in briefs, submitted by one side or the other, and use them in their briefs. In Ecuador, it's no different.

4 -- Krauss quotes Chevron saying that Donziger's "confidents" have turned against him, but everyone involved in the case knows that the individuals in question have been threatened and pressured by Chevron. For more than four years, Chevron pressured clients of Stratus Consulting, the environmental engineering firm for the Ecuadorians, to dump the firm. On the verge of bankruptcy resulting from the Chevron litigation against it, Stratus succumbed to the pressure with an affidavit disavowing the process for writing one of the court reports on contamination at the Chevron oil sites. Chevron dropped its lawsuit against Stratus; however, Stratus continues to stand by its findings of contamination. See here and here.

5 -- Another of Stratus' environmentalists is quoted from a video, saying that the contamination had not spread beyond the oil sites. Had Chevron allowed the reporter to see the entire video, he would have seen that she was concerned about the number of tests taken so far and was arguing for more testing to determine the impact of the contamination beyond the pits. Donziger was arguing that the Ecuadorians only had so much money to spend on tests; that contamination was evident at the oil sites, and that was enough to prove Chevron's guilt. Regardless, there is contamination at the well sites; people live near them; they should be cleaned.

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