Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Amazon Watch: The Truth Has No Place in Kaplan's Court

Originally posted to Eye on the Amazon, by Amazon Watch's Paul Paz y Miño, published Nov. 26th:

1,400 people have died from oil pollution in Ecuador

You likely already know that Chevron (as Texaco) admitted to deliberately dumping close to 18 billion gallons of toxic foundation waters into the pristine Ecuadorian Amazon over several decades (1964-1992). The company split from Ecuador in 1992, conducted a "remediation" proven to have been a complete sham, and got a $40 million "get out of jail free" card from the government of Ecuador (which specifically did NOT exempt them from any third party action). The results of their malicious acts to save just a few dollars per barrel? A wave of cancers and birth defects (incidentally, a Texaco engineer estimated in the 60's that about $4 million would cover the costs of building industry-standard lined waste pits but Texaco thought that was too costly) and a horrific health crisis that continues to this day.

In what is one of the most unlikely and significant victories in environmental and human rights history, 30,000 indigenous people and campesinos won a $9.5 billion judgment in a class action suit after 20 years of ugly legal battles (now upheld by Ecuador's highest court). Unlikely because of the unprecedented and overwhelming pressure placed on the plaintiffs, their supporters, Ecuador and the Ecuadorian judicial system. And significant as it sets an encouraging precedent that those victimized by powerful corporate forces have hope for justice and a way to fight back.

So how on Earth could this victory be so ridiculously, unethically and illegally turned on its head and evolve into the shocking display that just played out in a US Federal Court? And what repercussions and worrisome precedents could such reckless actions hold for corporate accountability and legal processes around the world?

I just spent most of the last two weeks in that New York City courtroom, where U.S. lawyer Steven Donziger and the Ecuadorian Lago Agrio plaintiffs found themselves accused of extortion and racketeering by the 3rd largest corporation in America. Chevron's sham trial will wrap up today, but thanks to Kaplan's inexplicable decision not to allow any testimony related to Chevron's contamination of the Ecuadorian Amazon – the actual issue here and disaster from which all this started – there's a lot that will never be discussed in the courtroom.

Unfortunately, there's even more going on here than a Chevron-friendly judge misusing his power to the detriment of 30,000 long-suffering people in Ecuador. This is the furthering of a strategy that corporations will continue to develop to crush the free speech of critics and limit our chances to fight back on anything resembling a level playing field. This RICO suit and everything Kaplan has allowed Chevron to get away with in its wake is a serious threat to open society and due process of law.

In 2010, before the Lago Agrio court had even issued a judgment (which Chevron now claims was "ghost written" by the legal team for the Ecuadorians), U.S. Federal Judge Lewis Kaplan had already made up his mind about the case. By issuing a worldwide injunction (later overturned by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals) Kaplan began a twisted journey through the looking glass and dragged the United States with him. Based on Chevron's trumped-up charges pieced together from edited Crude outtakes and thousands of emails between an international team constantly battling Chevron pressure tactics, Kaplan decided that a fraud had taken place and encouraged Chevron to file a RICO suit.

Kaplan has never been to Ecuador, knows nothing about its legal system and didn't even consider key evidence or hold a hearing to determine the facts. He doesn't even speak Spanish. His order, according to Professor Burt Neuborne, an extremely well-regarded human rights and civil liberties lawyer who is also the Legal Director of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, "[sent] an unmistakable message of American judicial arrogance to the rest of the world that can only result in increased levels of reciprocal judicial suspicion and hostility, with negative consequences for the transnational rule of law."

There will more than a few law journal articles about what Kaplan has done here (much of which is in direct contrast to some of his prior rulings). But here are just a few highlights of the violations of civil rights and perversion of legal power Kaplan allowed or encouraged:
Each of these pieces of Chevron's scorched-earth legal strategy is part of a specific approach to suppress free speech, scare off supporters, create and expand negative rumors, to divide and conquer the opposition. It's already been criticized by criminal defense lawyers familiar with RICO as a way to "send a message to a lawyer who wants to take up a cause for an underdog that Big Brother, the big corporate entity, is going to start coming after you for criminal conduct."

Even with Kaplan clearly on their side, Chevron does still have to do some of the work. There's a significant difference in the law between extortion by force and extortion by pressure. One allows a meritorious claim as a defense and the other doesn't. Yet, if the trial record does not allow for evidence of the reasons Donziger and the LAPs initially filed their suit – the toxic contamination – how can anyone make a judgment on whether their claims against Chevron have merit? Chevron has to affirmatively prove that the LAPs have no right to recovery, yet they never submitted any evidence related to the actual contamination.

If you cut through the theatrics that have little or nothing at all to do with the claims, Chevron is left with absolutely nothing more than a triple hearsay statement from an admitted liar and corrupt judge, who was paid more than $300,000 by Chevron for his testimony. There's not a single piece of evidence to prove in even the slightest that Judge Zambrano did not write the verdict. Everything Chevron has introduced has been done so to suggest that something nefarious happened without actually proving the claims. Mix that with Kaplan's attitude towards Donziger and all things Ecuador and you have a show trial and nothing more.

Even Kaplan himself appeared frustrated that Chevron's lawyers have not made his task easy by giving him a solid case to base his judgement upon. That is why they dropped the damages claim to ensure no jury would ever hear their case – they'd never swallow it. Nevertheless, most are confident Kaplan will complete the task he set out before the Lago Agrio judgment was even issued – he will hand Chevron a ruling they can tout to anyone who will listen.

It's no matter that it will not be based on the facts. No matter that it will not contain any evidence of actual extortion or illegal acts. No matter that it will be used expressly to violate the order of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals when they directed Kaplan not to act as an enforcement court.

Truth is stranger than fiction. These events would seem too outlandish to be true had I not witnessed them with my own eyes. And that is exactly what Chevron is hoping for. They will use Kaplan's verdict for years to come (though the verdict itself will inevitably be faced with legal problems that will likely cause it to fall apart quickly under appeal), and possibly spend billions more hoping empty words based on lies and manufactured "facts" will drown out the voices of the tens of thousands who continue to live with the harsh reality of Chevron's despicable acts in the Amazon.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Human Rights Lawyer's Testimony Censored by US Court

Today, representatives of lawyer Steven Donziger and the Ecuadorean communities ravaged by Chevron contamination issued a press release highlighting the significant passages of Donziger's testimony struck from the record by Judge Lewis Kaplan. From the release:
Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, overseeing Chevron’s RICO trial against Ecuadorian villagers and their lawyers, is suppressing critical witness testimony about Chevron’s extensive contamination of Ecuador’s rainforest that clearly demonstrates a  $9.5 billion environmental judgment against the company is valid, a spokesman for the villagers said Monday.

“Judge Kaplan is again demonstrating his deep-seated animus toward the Ecuadorian communities victimized by Chevron’s pollution,” said Han Shan, the U.S.-based spokesman for thousands of Ecuadorian villagers who in 2011 won a judgment against Chevron after an Ecuador court found the company dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste onto the lands and waterways of the Amazon.

Kaplan’s latest move in the RICO case, which is expected to end tomorrow, was to strike substantial portions of the written witness testimony of Steven Donziger, the New York lawyer who has represented the Ecuadorian villagers since 1993.  Donziger, the main defendant in the case, has disputed all of Chevron’s allegations and has characterized the RICO lawsuit as a form of retaliation against those who held the company accountable for toxic dumping.  Ecuador’s Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the judgment against Chevron earlier this month.
Forbidden by Judge Lewis Kaplan from providing direct testimony on the stand about his two-decade-long involvement in efforts to hold Chevron accountable for its human rights and environmental abuses in Ecuador, Steven instead was ordered to submit a written declaration as his direct testimony.  After submitting his statement, last Monday—November 18th—Steven Donziger finally took the stand.

The lead lawyer for Chevron in the trial, Gibson Dunn's Randy Mastro, announced  that he expected to spend more than a full day cross-examining Steven.   Instead, after halting, confused questioning of Donziger during which the perfectly poised witness answered questions in an easygoing, explanatory fashion, Mastro huddled with furrow-browed Chevron company lawyers at a brief break. After the recess, Mastro, looking rattled, announced in open court that he had only a few more questions.  He soon beat a hasty retreat before the lunch break, lest he offer Donziger further opportunity to deconstruct Chevron's cynical and deceptive narrative. All in all, the day was a huge victory for Donziger. 

Donziger's witness statement was submitted to the court but Chevron predictably filed a motion to strike most of it, in an effort to suppress evidence of the company's environmental crimes and fraudulent cover-up in Ecuador.

Judge Kaplan granted many of Chevron's motions and struck numerous significant passages in the testimony. Judge Kaplan didn't grant all of Chevron's requests, which would have reduced the powerful testimony to a handful of disconnected floating paragraphs.

Click here to read Donziger's complete witness testimony, noting that all of the greyed-out passages are those that Chevron requested be struck, and all of the yellow highlighted passages are those that Kaplan actually struck from the record based on Chevron's motions.

Here are some highlights from Donziger's written testimony:
  • The Ecuador judgment is “valid” based on overwhelming scientific evidence that Chevron “deliberately discharged billions of gallons of toxic waste into Ecuador’s rainforest” resulting in “grave harm and even death to thousands of innocent people.”  (Paragraph # 7)
  • As late as April of 2012, a high-level Chevron executive approached representatives of the rainforest communities to initiate settlement discussions. The contacts did not continue after the villagers filed legal enforcement actions to seize billions of dollars of Chevron assets in Canada and Brazil.  (Paragraph #19)
  • An environmental consultancy in the U.S., the Louis Berger Group (LBG), has independently reviewed the evidence before the Ecuador court and concluded there is ample support for the findings of liability and damages against Chevron.  It also concluded Chevron’s own evidence before the Ecuador court supports a finding of liability against the company.  LBG’s report, commissioned by the government of Ecuador, has been turned over to an arbitration panel hearing a related dispute over the pollution.  Donziger is submitting it as evidence in the RICO trial to help prove the judgment was not obtained by fraud. (Paragraphs #48, 59)
  • Donziger said the preparation of the expert report of Dr. Richard Cabera was “fundamentally consistent with Ecuador law, custom, and practice as it was occurring” in the case against Chevron.  While Chevron tries to focus attention on the report, Donziger said it is irrelevant given that the Ecuador court excluded it.  He also said there was some confusion surrounding the preparation of the report but that the science underlying it remains valid and that excluding it as evidence amounted to a “draconian” sanction against the rainforest communities.  It is Donziger’s most detailed comment yet on that issue. (Paragraphs #91 through 106)
  • Donziger also described how Chevron’s own lawyers publicly called many of the oil company’s own court-appointed experts “independent” even though they paid 100% of their fees and worked closely with them, just as lawyers for the plaintiffs did when referring to Dr. Cabrera.  Chevron has claimed Donziger was trying to mislead the public when he called Cabrera “independent” but Donziger says the term, based on what he knows today, is accurate and was widely used by both parties in the case to describe their own experts. (Paragraphs #79 through 90)
  • Donziger suggested that lawyers on the plaintiff’s team made some minor errors typical in a contentious and long-running litigation, but that those errors paled in comparison to the deeply corrupt acts engaged in by Chevron to sabotage the trial.  Whatever errors were committed did not come close to amounting to fraud, as has been confirmed by Ecuador’s courts.  Although Judge Kaplan has tried to exclude evidence of Chevron’s corruption, Donziger is trying to bring it in as evidence of his state of mind.
  • Donziger again made it clear – as he did in a sworn declaration submitted to Kaplan’s court last March – that he did not bribe a judge in Ecuador and that Chevron’s star witness who so alleges, Alberto Guerra, is corrupt and a liar.  Donziger said Guerra’s testimony is a “massive lie” at the core of Chevron’s case.  A motion to strike Guerra’s testimony is pending before the court.
Donziger's declaration is a profoundly important summary of the two-decade effort of the rainforest communities to hold Chevron accountable. After reading the powerful testimony, and comparing the grey parts—sections Chevron asked to be stricken—and yellow highlighted passages—sections Judge Kaplan struck from the record—one can be forgiven for thinking that censorship is alive and well in America.

It is, and it's being carried out under the guise of a judicial process that Chevron is using to conceal its crimes in Ecuador and retaliate against those that have helped bring them to light.

“They are trying to destroy my life”: Chevron’s legal war on its harshest critic

Editor of the Earth Island Journal Jason Mark wrote a story that first appeared in the magazine, and has now been syndicated by Salon. In the article, Mark goes beyond the basic reporting on the back-and-forth of the Chevron v. Donziger trial to explore the broader implications of the oil giant's retaliatory efforts.

First he quotes Donziger's former counsel:
John Keker, a defense attorney who represented Donziger until the besieged lawyer could no longer pay his bills, describes Chevron’s efforts as “scorched-earth litigation.” Here’s how Keker explained Chevron’s legal tactics when he filed a motion to be dismissed from the case:
“Chevron is using its limitless resources to crush defendants and win this case through might rather than merit. There is no sign that Chevron wants a trial on the merits. Instead, it will continue its endless drumbeat of motions — for summary judgment, for attachment, to re-instate long-dismissed claims, for penetration of attorney client privilege, for contempt and case-ending sanctions, to compel discover already denied or deemed moot, etc., etc. — to have the case resolved in its favor without a trial. … Encouraged by this Court’s implacable hostility to Donziger, Chevron will file any motion, however meritless, in the hope the Court will use it to hurt Donziger. Dongizer does not have the resources to defend against Chevron’s motion strategy.”
Mark then turns to some legal scholars for their view on this unprecedented and extraordinary case:
Susan Bozorgi, a Miami-based criminal defense lawyer, told Newsweek that she worries about what it will mean if Chevron wins: “[RICO] was meant to be used against the mob. The danger about a case like this is that it could send a message to a lawyer who wants to take up a cause for an underdog that Big Brother, the big corporate entity, is going to start coming after you for criminal conduct.”

UC-Hastings law professor Roht-Arriaza said to me: “I’m not a RICO expert, but I don’t know of any case that involves the behavior of companies abroad, where the company has turned around and sued under RICO. Chevron has been sued before, but they haven’t done this, even when it looked like things weren’t going well for them.” She continued: “It’s interesting the number of levels on which Chevron is fighting back. They are not only doing this, they are also bringing all of these arbitration cases, basically trying to say that the Ecuadorian court shouldn’t have brought any judgment.”
Mark quotes a spokesperson from Chevron who says that Donziger and the Ecuadorean villagers whose rainforest lands have been ravaged by the company's pollution are merely "scapegoating" the oil giant. The article concludes:
Of course, scapegoating is in the eye of the beholder. For his part, Donziger feels he’s the one being hounded. “They are trying to destroy my life,” he told me. “It’s improper, it’s illegal, and it’s unethical. They have hired people to follow me. They sued me for $60 billion, and then they dropped that down to $100 million, and then they dropped that because they are scared of having a jury trial. And now they are using a US federal judge, who I think is biased in their favor, and who is denying my due process rights.”

Then Donziger said, “There is an intimidation factor. The entire idea behind the entire RICO case is not to fight wrongdoers. It’s a weapon to intimidate their critics.”

If he’s right — and Chevron has spent all of this money just to intimidate people and prevent future litigation — then it leads us to a sobering conclusion: Even if the judge rules in Donziger’s favor, Chevron still wins.
 Read the entire article here.