Increasingly isolated in its Ecuador pollution case, Chevron is paying for "friend of the court" briefs by supposedly independent parties such as the National Organization for Women ("NOW") that are designed to back the company's faltering defense to its $9.5 billion environmental liability.
Anxious to save its flawed non-jury verdict in its retaliatory RICO case, Chevron is again reaching into its deep pockets to garner support. The company already hired at least 60 law firms and 2,000 legal personnel to defend against the claims of the rainforest villagers. Yet the business community -- led by the U.S. Chamber of commerce -- is clearly skittish with Chevron's scorched earth approach. So too is the bulk of the U.S. human rights community.
NOW's legal arm (called Legal Momentum) apparently has no such qualms, prompting furious criticism of the organization by Ecuadorian women and their allies in the U.S. The organization received major donations in 2013 from Chevron and its lead outside law firm, Gibson Dunn. It then filed an amicus brief backing Chevron's unprecedented expansion of the RICO statute to target human rights lawyers and indigenous groups. Not even Gibson Dunn's own lawyers agree with Chevron's and NOW's untenable legal position, as this press release points out.
It appears that Gibson Dunn gave NOW's Legal Momentum a small amount annually until 2012. That's the year it became clear the appeal of Chevron's RICO case would be critical. So in 2012, Chevron started contributing to NOW's legal entity for the first time. That's also when Gibson Dunn upped its contribution significantly.
Among human rights lawyers, the only traction Chevron can get is by paying consulting fees to outliers like Professor Douglas Cassel whose agenda is to mitigate corporate human rights abuses by working closely with the abusers and making them feel less bad about themselves. Like Chevron, Cassell traffics in distorted facts about the litigation in Ecuador as this critique makes clear. (Cassell's diatribes about Ecuador got so bad that the Notre Dame faculty ordered them removed from his university website.)
The mainstream of the human rights and environmental communities in the U.S. -- including prominent groups like Amnesty International, Avaaz, Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, Friends of the Earth, Amazon Watch, and Earth Rights International -- have lined up squarely behind the rainforest communities in their two-decade battle to hold Chevron accountable for the dumping of billions of gallons of toxic waste. For a summary of the overwhelming evidence against Chevron, see here.
What Chevron's management should do is pay for the clean-up ordered by the court in its preferred forum of Ecuador. Chevron's stunning problems with the RICO case -- including a likely reversal on appeal -- were outlined recently by attorney Aaron Marr Page in this blog on the Huffington Post. Eight appellate judges in Ecuador have affirmed the trial court judgment. Because Chevron refuses to pay, the villagers are now being forced to pursue company assets in Canada, Brazil, and Argentina.
For a party to a litigation, paying for a "friend of the court" brief (also known as an "amicus" brief) without disclosure is a clear violation of the rules governing legal ethics. Such briefs are supposed to come from independent entities that offer a perspective that bears on an issue being considered by the appellate court. Any financial ties between the entity and a party to the litigation are required to be disclosed.
As usual, Chevron and its new "friends" are playing by their own rules. In NOW's case, there was no disclosure. Chevron gets around this by claiming it is not paying for the preparation of the briefs. Rather, it claims it is just making "general" donations to the organizations that wrote the briefs. Such a cute distinction. And so typical of Chevron.
Does NOW actually think it will receive Chevron money in the future because the company is so committed to protecting abortion clinics?
Chevron submitted its 185-page brief to the U.S. appellate court in early October. Its amicus briefs were filed soon thereafter. That's when new and unpleasant details of the company's strategy emerged. Consider:
**NOW filed a brief backing Chevron's use of the RICO statute to target the impoverished women and children suffering from cancer in the rainforest due to the company's pollution, as this press release points out. NOW admits on its website that took in at least $50,000 to $100,000 from Chevron and its law firm in 2013. NOW has thus far refused to disclose more recent payments from Chevron or Gibson Dunn, but they are likely sizable.
Mariana Jiminez, a community leader in Ecuador who lives in an area contaminated by the company, could not have said it better: "We are furious that a major American advocacy group that purports to advocate on behalf of women would sell out the women of Ecuador in this fashion."
**The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has openly received millions of dollars from Chevron in recent years. The Chamber's "friend of the court" brief on behalf of Chevron, which opposes "fraud" in litigation but is notably silent on the use of RICO, did not disclose any aspect of its extensive financial and lobbying dealings with Chevron.
**The Business Roundtable ("BR"), an organization that also receives substantial Chevron donations, submitted an amicus brief that also did not disclose its ties to the company. We believe it is likely that the four law professors who signed on to the BR brief were paid by BR. In other words, BR allowed itself to be used a conduit to launder Chevron's payments to the professors when court rules bar direct payments without disclosure.
The professor who led the BR brief, Roger Alford, once took an all-expense paid trip to Ecuador sponsored by Chevron. Another, Janet Walker, was a Chevron consultant on the case. Neither disclosed their ties to the company in the brief they signed.
**Then there's a curious brief by a small group of self-annointed "human rights and anti-corruption" lawyers who call themselves "jurists" even though they seem to engage in the tawdry practice of hourly billing just like most lawyers. Given Chevron's long history of corruption and bribes in Ecuador -- including an offer of $1 billion to extricate itself from the legal case and threats to put judges in jail -- one would think this group of "human rights jurists" would come down on the side of the indigenous groups who are being victimized by Chevron. But no.
While the "jurists" take no position on the "merits" of the case, the professors posit that if Judge Kaplan's "findings" are true (and we have explained repeatedly why they are not) then his unprecedented decision should be upheld. These "jurists" appear to have so much respect for the rule of law that they ignore the fact that two layers of Ecuador's appellate courts engaged in a de novo review of the 220,000-page evidentiary record and unanimously rejected Chevron's complaints.
In contrast, the meddling Judge Kaplan (who does not speak Spanish and has zero familiarity with Ecuadorian law) refused even to read the Ecuador trial court record. He also "ruled" that Ecuador's entire judicial system is flawed based on the testimony of one political opponent of the current President. We cannot remember another instance when an American trial judge thought he could overturn a foreign country's Supreme Court on issues of that country's laws.
Chevron's pay-for-briefs game recently took a dramatic bad turn for the company in Canada. That's a place where the judiciary seems to have more respect for the sovereignty of foreign courts than Judge Kaplan. It's also where Chevron has roughly $15 billion in assets. The villagers have an argument in early December before Canada's Supreme Court on a jurisdictional issue as Chevron continues its strategy of obsruction at every pass.
Even with its deep pockets, Chevron was unable to garner any support in Canada for the Supreme Court argument. First, the Canada Supreme Court rejected a request by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to file an amicus brief for Chevron. Chevron then tried to strong-arm the Canadian Bar Association into filing an amicus brief. But that backfired when hundreds of members threatened to resign from the organization in protest.
The CBA then embarrassingly withdrew its planned amicus brief that had been drafted "pro bono" by none other than a law firm that had done extensive work for Chevron on its oil and gas business in Calgary. For background on Chevron's debacle in Canada, see here.
It is worth noting that the Ecuadorian villagers and New York human rights lawyer Steven Donziger (Chevron's primary targets) are being backed with "friend of the court" briefs by none other than 17 prominent non-profit groups and 35 international law scholars from more than 11 countries. In Canada, three prominent human rights groups (including the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law) have weighed in on the side of the indigenous groups. Their amicus brief can be read here. Unlike NOW, none of these entities are being paid (excuse us, are receiving sudden large donations) for their work.
That support for the villagers is in addition to a letter signed by 43 U.S. non-profit groups criticizing Chevron's effort to use the RICO statute to silence and intimidate its critics.
Of course, Chevron's ethical shortcomings with its amicus briefs pale in comparison to the company's refusal to clean the billions of gallons of toxic waste it dumped into the rainforest. But it is part of a disturbing pattern of untoward behavior by the oil company. We also note that Elaine Wood, the director of NOW's legal arm, is a fomer executive at Kroll. Kroll is the private investigations service based in New York to whom Chevron paid at least $15 million to spy on, track, and harrass Donziger and his Ecuadorian colleagues.
We must wonder whether Ms. Wood is comfortable taking money from a company that not only pollutes the rainforest for profit but also engages in corporate espionage against adversary counsel.
It is the superprofits from Chevron's dumping in Ecuador that help allow it to make "contributions" to all sorts of non-profit organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere. We suspect that if NOW's members were to learn of their organization's acceptance of substantial funds from a corporate polluter that is harming indigenous women in the Amazon rainforest, they would not be happy.
For a reminder of the devastating human toll of Chevron's toxic dumping in Ecuador, see this gripping photo essay by journalist Lou Demettais. Ms. Wood, NOW's leaders, and the organization's members and supporters could do themselves a big favor by taking a close look.
Note: The leading amicus briefs for the villagers in the U.S. case -- which argue that Chevron's strategy violates the First Amendment and international law and comity -- are available here and here. The appellate briefs from Donziger and his clients, which we believe expose the deep weaknesses in all of Chevron's factual and legal arguments, can be read here and here.