Wednesday, September 24, 2014

NYT Columnist Joe Nocera Hides Major Conflict of Interest Over Chevron's Ecuador Case

We have long known business writer Joe Nocera to be the resident lightweight of the NYT op-ed page. He clearly lacks the supple analytical insight often seen in the writing of his colleagues Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman, Charles Blow, David Brooks, and Paul Krugman.

It was no surprise, then, when Nocera decided to use his column to help his Businessweek buddy Paul Barrett promote his one-sided new book on Chevron’s ecological calamity in Ecuador. Barrett's thesis -- which Nocera adopts wholesale -- is that a good legal case against Chevron was spoiled by the hubris of New York human rights attorney Steven Donziger. The truth is far more complicated.

Because of the tenacious lawyering of Donziger and his colleagues, Chevron lost the case in Ecuador and now faces the potential seizure of billions of dollars of strategically important company assets in Canada, Brazil, and Argentina. Eight separate appellate judges in Ecuador -- the venue where Chevron wanted the trial held -- have ruled against the company. This includes a unanimous five-judge panel from Ecuador's Supreme Court.

Barrett ignores virtually all of this in his book. So does Nocera in his column.

(For more on Donziger's perspective that Nocera and Barrett ignore, see this op-ed published today on the website of Inside Counsel magazine. Donziger also wrote a highly detailed letter to Barrett and his publisher documenting the writer's shoddy reporting, fictional scenes, lazy technique, and factual errors. That letter can be read here.)

Nocera obviously tried to help salvage Barrett's credibility problems by attacking Donziger. What is surprising is how Nocera blew off the overwhelming evidence of Chevron's liability in Ecuador. Here's an email Donziger sent to Nocera before he wrote. Virtually none of this highly relevant information made it into the published column.

Also surprising – no, inexcusable – is how Nocera failed to disclose in the column that his spouse is a lawyer and public relations director for a prominent New York litigation firm hired by Chevron to work on the Ecuador environmental case. The main adversary of the firm? None other than Donziger, the lawyer Nocera attacks. Oops!

We have since learned that there is a disturbing pattern to Nocera's conflicts. Consider:
  • Nocera’s wife, Dawn Schneider, is the communications director for the Boies Schiller law firm headed by well-known litigator David Boies. Chevron hired the firm to work on critical discovery issues related to the Ecuador case. Here are legal briefs [HERE and HERE] that demonstrate the firm's deep involvement in defending Chevron against corruption allegations. Nocera did not disclose his wife's connection to this law firm in his column.
  • In 2006, Nocera was roundly criticized for writing a cover story for the New York Times Magazine on the tobacco company Altria (formerly Phillip Morris) that was surprisingly soft. The public relations person for Altria who worked directly with Nocera on the article? None other than the erstwhile Dawn Schneider.  
  • On another occasion, Nocera wrote in his column about a litigation dispute between Oracle and SAP in which he passed judgment in favor of Oracle. But Oracle also was a client of David Boies, the immediate boss of Dawn Schneider. Nocera failed to disclose this fact as well. Details of that embarrassing episode -- which caused the NYT to publish a clarification  -- are here.
Nocera’s latest column attacking Donziger relies heavily on the findings of activist U.S. judge Lewis A. Kaplan that purports to overturn a unanimous decision by Ecuador's Supreme Court on questions of Ecuadorian law. Kaplan himself disparaged the Ecuadorians from the bench and made a mockery of justice as this document explains in some detail.

Nocera also ignored evidence of Chevron’s bribes, witness tampering, and cooking of evidence in the Ecuador and U.S. trials – all readily available in public documents, including in Donziger’s 130-page brief.

Barrett’s book is largely an apologia for Chevron’s atrocious behavior in the Amazon rainforest. He spent only a handful of days in Ecuador. Barrett also failed to interview anybody of import on either side of the litigation. And he topped it all off by repeating many of Chevron’s talking points in testimony this summer before the U.S. Congress where he sat next to a partner from Chevron’s lead outside law firm. See here for the details.
Nocera is also friends with Fortune writer Roger Parloff, another full-throated advocate for Chevron trying to masquerade as an independent journalist. For more about Parloff’s own lack of ethics and his own feeble attempt to help Barrett, read this recent blog post.

We have asked Nocera to disclose the conflict of interest over his wife’s role in the law firm involved in the Ecuador litigation. He will have a chance to do so in his next column.

We're not holding our breath.