Saturday, April 25, 2009

Mickey Kantor Has an Ethics Problem

Mickey Kantor, normally an impressive individual, has a major ethics problem.

Kantor, as Peter Stone reports in The National Journal is taking money from Chevron to defend an American oil company responsible for what is probably the worst human rights problem in the world related to environmental degradation –the deliberate dumping of 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into the Amazon by Texaco (now Chevron) from 1964 to 1992 in Ecuador, all to keep production costs to the bare minimum. This dumping – and the separate abandonment of 916 unlined waste pits that for decades have been leaching toxins into soils and groundwater – has over the last four decades caused cancer rates to skyrocket, decimated indigenous cultures, and despoiled an area of the rainforest the size of Rhode Island. The entire catastrophe is at least 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill, and thousands of people in this part of Ecuador are living in and around the contamination with no access to clean water or adequate health care. Chevron would never have done this type of thing in the U.S. where it would be called to account; it was done in an isolated part of the rainforest because the company calculated it could get away with it. To understand the issue, take a look at this short memorandum and this Q&A. And to understand how Chevron has treated this crisis, take a look at this document about Chevron's Top 10 Lies about Ecuador.

So Kantor is now trying to rescue Chevron from what is fast becoming a public relations and financial crisis of epic proportions. (Chevron, perhaps not coincidentally, has other human rights problems – it employs one of the six "torture lawyers" subject to possible investigation and prosecution. His name is William Haynes, the former general counsel for the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld.) Kantor is taking Chevron's money to help lobby the executive branch agency he used to head, the office of the United States Trade Representative. His objective is to persuade the USTR to "punish" Ecuador for letting indigenous tribes and farmer communities in the Amazon bring a lawsuit over this mess in Ecuador's courts. With this single representation, Kantor is violating both the spirit of the new ethics rules put forth by the Obama Administration and providing cover for a company involved in what the lawsuit claims is a massive human rights violation affecting tens of thousands of people. There is no evidence that Kantor or any of Chevron's other A-list lobbyists have even visited the affected region, read the studies about increased cancer rates, or talked to any of the thousands of victims. Yet they ply their trade with no moral sensibility about the consequences of their actions.

Chevron should be paying Kantor at least ten times his normal rate to take this on. The company spent $6.8 million on lobbying in the first quarter of this year (about $27 million on an annualized basis), not including the 20 or so people on the company's permanent government relations staff in Washington. Some significant portion of this spending relates to the Ecuador lawsuit, where the company faces a possible judgment of $27 billion for clean-up. Separately, two Chevron lawyers and seven former government officials are under indictment for lying about the results of an earlier clean-up that was appears to have been a fraud.

In a nutshell, Kantor has been hired by Chevron to undermine the legal rights of thousands of people to sue the company and hold it accountable. Rather than letting the trial finish, he is trying to shut the trial down. His job is to pressure Ecuador's President to violate his country's Constitution, interfere with his country's independent judiciary, and extinguish the legal claims held by thousands of his own citizens who are trying against all odds to address a life-threatening situation. What audacity these indigenous groups have. Last year, a Chevron lobbyist was quoted anonymously in a Newsweek story written by Michael Isikoff as saying, in reference to the Ecuador case: "We can't little countries screw around with big companies like this – companies that have made big investments around the world."

This quote reflects Chevron's attitude about the rule of law. The "little" people should not be allowed to sue big American companies. But big American companies should be allowed to sue, harass, and violate the rights of the "little" people if it's necessary to protect their bottom line.

Kantor wants Ecuador's government to behave like a "Banana Republic" and corrupt the legal process of its own country. This is a shameless attack on the rule of law. It is also dishonest. In 2002 Chevron consented to jurisdiction in Ecuador before a U.S. federal judge as a condition of the case being transferred out of U.S. federal court where it had originally been filed. At the time, Chevron submitted 14 expert affidavits praising the courts there as fair and adequate.

Kantor wants the USTR to decide the issue based on what is good for Chevron. In that vein, he claims in The National Journal story that the potential $27 billion in damages has "no logic", as if he is in a position to know. There is a 4,000-page report explaining those damages, based on 200,000 pages of trial evidence and more than 62,000 chemical sampling results that show contamination at 100% of Texaco's former production sites in Ecuador. I doubt Kantor has even seen the front page of this report, much less the executive summary or annexes. (This report has been reviewed by 25 respected scientists in the U.S., Ecuador, and Spain who have found its conclusions reasonable and the damages figure roughly in keeping with the cost of clean-up of other large environmental disasters.)

Kantor should recuse himself from the issue by virtue of his former work as the USTR ambassador, if nothing else. I also assume he has made enough money in his years as a lobbyist that he doesn't have to serve as a hired gun for Chevron defending a massive human rights violation that besmirches the image of the U.S. in Ecuador and the rest of Latin America.