If you want a new example of corruption in legal academia, look no further than Chevron's relationship with Notre Dame "human rights" law professor Douglas Cassel. Chevron is paying Cassel to attack the rainforest villagers and lawyers who have held Chevron accountable in Ecuador for its environmental disaster in one of the great recent successes of the corporate accountability and human rights movements.
As far as we can tell, Cassel never even spoke or wrote about this historic human rights case until Chevron started to pay him in 2012. He now tries to downplay his financial relationship with Chevron when writing bogs that largely regurgitate the company's talking points and are rife with factual distortions and other shortcomings, as this critique to his "Open Letter" points out in detail.
Cassel is being used by Chevron to help it evade paying the $10 billion judgment it owes to the people of Ecuador for dumping toxic waste into the rainforest when it operated in the South American nation between 1964 and 1992.
It is pretty clear that Cassel also is allowing himself to play a central role in a classic oil industry subterfuge. Since the corporation (Chevron) that dumped billions of gallons of oil waste into the rainforest no longer has credibility, it tries to enlist a third party academic to launder its agitprop. It is another example of how Chevron tries to use money to corrupt institutions, whether they be courts or universities as we describe in more detail below.
During the litigation, Chevron was so desperate to avoid losing that it paid $2 million to a discredited witness to present false testimony about a supposed bribe that was later disproven by computer forensic analysis. It also threatened judges in Ecuador with jail time if they did not rule in its favor. Chevron lawyers filed thousands of frivolous motions to delay and sabotage the judicial process. (For more on Chevron's unethical payments of thousands of dollars in cash to key witness Alberto Guerra, see here and here. For a general account of the company's corruption in Ecuador, see this sworn affidavit.)
Chevron has tried to enlist other academics in its cash-for-support propaganda plan. Most have resisted the entreaties, but the results are poor for those who signed on. When in 2008 Chevron tried to use Dr. Douglas Southgate to defend its toxic dumping in Ecuador, it turned out he was affiliated with an institute funded by the oil and gas industry designed to cast doubt on global warning. See here for background.
Chevron also tried to use Dr. Ralph Marquez to "monitor" the science in the Ecuador case during visits by court experts to the company's highly contaminated well sites. Once Marquez was exposed as a former chief lobbyist for the chemical industry in the state of Texas (and a confidant of Karl Rove), he disappeared from the case. (See here for background.)
Chevron's lineage with low-grade "academics" reflects poorly on both Cassel's personal ethics and those of Notre Dame's reputable law school. Notre Dame should not be letting Cassel trade on its credibility to sell his own soul (and by extension the university's) to a corporate human rights abuser -- particularly when there is no real transparency about the amount of money changing hands and the conditions placed by the company on any "research" for publication.
While Cassel reaps cash for the arrangement, Notre Dame must pay a high cost via its harmed reputation and compromised academic integrity. The New York Times just exposed the same type of academic corruption at various universities -- including the University of Florida -- where Monsanto and other companies are battling to stop the labeling of genetically-modified foods by quietly paying academics to advocate their positions without full transparency.
Most universities now require their faculty to be completely transparent about any financial relationships they might have with third parties. Notre Dame needs to get on board. Cassel's failure to be transparent about his financial ties to Chevron creates a conflict of interest given his responsibilities to teach Notre Dame's students consistent with the high standards of scholarship and professional objectivity demanded by a top-flight university.
Does Cassel tell his students that he is taking money from Chevron, a company that multiple courts have found to have committed environmental human rights abuses in Ecuador on a grand scale? When he teaches the case, does he provide the financial details of his conflict of interest? Does he disclose his contract so students can assess if Chevron has editorial control (or influence) over what he publishes as a so-called "academic"? Is anyone at Notre Dame asking these questions?
Cassel's spectacle is made worse by the fact Notre Dame expressly states that its mission is to help combat poverty, oppression, and injustice -- the very life conditions forced on thousands of indigenous persons and farmers in Ecuador by the irresponsible operating practices of Cassel's client. (For background on the overwhelming evidence against Chevron in the case, see here. For the high rates of cancer in the rainforest where Chevron operated, see here. For a legal brief responding in detail to Chevron's allegations of fraud, see here.)
Last week, after Canada's Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Ecuadorian villagers could try to seize Chevron's assets in that country to pay for their clean-up, Cassel predictably posted a blog trying to minimize the importance of the decision. In fact, the decision is highly significant and was reported in all major media (see here for our take on the significance) for good reason. Which interpretation of the decision does Cassel plan to teach in the classroom -- his "own" version consistent with Chevron's talking points, or the perspective of the Canadian justices and villagers?
It is worth nothing that Cassel is isolated in his pro-Chevron view of the case. At least 35 prominent international law scholars from nine countries have filed a legal brief supporting the villagers as have numerous U.S. environmental and human rights groups. As far as we can tell, Cassel is virtually alone in legal academia as a wholesale backer of Chevron defenses that already have been rejected by multiple courts, including Ecuador's top court. We doubt he would take such a position if he were not being paid.
Notre Dame appears to have a strong "conflict of interest" policy that prohibits any "situation where financial or other personal or
professional considerations compromise an individual’s objectivity, professional judgment,
professional integrity, and/or ability to perform his or her professional responsibilities to the
University." On its website, the law school says a Notre Dame lawyer should embody "exceptional moral and ethical standards" and "compassion" for others.
These standards might be a good starting point for Notre Dame faculty to use when assessing Cassel's behavior.
To be clear, we don't mind taking on Cassel's pro-Chevron arguments and we do not dispute his right to be heard. What we do mind is his lack of ethics and fundamental dishonesty in trying to downplay -- and often hide -- his relationship with Chevron as a way to try to enhance his own credibility.
We are waiting for Cassel to disclose any and all of his written agreements with Chevron. It would be interesting to know how much he charges to compromise his personal ethics, the ideals of the human rights movement, and the academic integrity of a university.