Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Once Again Chevron Masquerades As A News Organization

Uses Employee’s Spouse -- A “Stay-Home Dad” -- To Undermine Environmental Group Critical Of Its Contaminated Legacy In Ecuador

In a press release issued today, the Amazon Defense Coalition revealed another example of Chevron posing as an independent “journalist” to send e-mails to funders of a small environmental organization that has been critical of Chevron’s management for refusing to pay the company’s court-ordered $18 billion liability in Ecuador.

This stunning revelation about Thorne’s e-mails comes just days after several large Chevron shareholders blasted Chevron CEO John Watson for displaying "poor judgment" in Ecuador which “has led investors to question whether [Chevron’s] leadership can properly manage the array of environmental challenges and risks that it faces.” The comments from the investors, who manage a combined $156 billion in assets and include New York’s pension fund, are contained in a letter sent to Chevron.

Alex Thorne

Thorne recently sent e-mails to several funders of the U.S.-based environmental group Amazon Watch in which he claimed to be working on an “article” for a publication he refused to specify. He also did not use his last name in the email, signing it only as “Alex.” The e-mails then asked the funders “if it is time” to “reevaluate” their support for Amazon Watch in light of Chevron’s oft-criticized claim that the 18-year legal case is part of an extortion racket.

Thorne is married to Kristen Thorne, Chevron’s senior policy advisor on environment and energy issues. Alex Thorne did not disclose in the emails to Amazon Watch’s funders that he is married to a high-level Chevron employee or that he has operated a pro-Chevron website critical of the leaders of the Ecuador lawsuit.

“Alex Thorne’s phony emails are part of Chevron’s Karl Rove-style campaign designed to intimidate American citizens who are trying to hold Chevron accountable for committing environmental crimes and fraud in Ecuador,” said Karen Hinton, the spokesperson for the Ecuadorian communities who brought the lawsuit.

In one email to the Moriah Fund, which was forwarded to Amazon Watch, Alex Thorne says: “I’m writing an article highlighting Amazon Watch’s top donors which will include mentioning the Moriah Fund… My article highlights organizations such as yours and questions whether it is time to reevaluate your support for Amazon Watch.”

Representatives of the Amazon communities have long charged that Chevron committed environmental crimes in Ecuador and that its “extortion” claim is nothing more than a last-ditch ploy to mislead shareholders. Two Chevron employees are currently under criminal indictment in Ecuador for lying about the results of a purported environmental cleanup that the plaintiffs say was a clear case of fraud.

Amazon Watch, which is based in San Francisco near Chevron headquarters, has a handful of staff members and a $950,000 annual budget. In contrast, Chevron has 62,000 employees and grossed $204 billion last year, or an amount roughly 200,000 times more than Amazon Watch’s annual expenditures.

Despite their lack of resources, Amazon Watch’s staff members have had an outsized impact on Chevron. They have infuriated Chevron’s management by filing complaints against the oil giant with the Securities and Exchange Commission, by confronting the company’s Board of Directors during shareholder meetings, and by organizing protests outside the home of Chevron CEO Watson.

Just last week at Chevron’s annual meeting, Amazon Watch Executive Director Atossa Soltani accused Watson of having a personal conflict of interest over the Ecuador issue while several Chevron Board members looked on in stunned silence.

Along with lawyers for the Ecuadorians, Amazon Watch also has accused Chevron of engaging in a Nixon-style “dirty tricks” campaign in Ecuador designed to sabotage the trial. These activities have been summarized in the sworn affidavit of Ecuador attorney Juan Pablo Saenz, filed in multiple courts and available here.

Chevron’s larger problem is that an Ecuador court in February imposed a cleanup tab of $18 billion for the deliberate discharge of billions of gallons of toxic waste into streams and rivers of the Amazon rainforest, where the company operated (via predecessor company Texaco) from 1964 to 1992. Chevron’s substandard operational practices in Ecuador – admitted to by the company at trial -- decimated indigenous groups and caused an outbreak of cancer and other oil-related diseases that will haunt tens of thousands of people for decades without a comprehensive remediation, according to evidence submitted by the plaintiffs.

For most of 2009, Alex Thorne maintained a website where he regularly attacked the leaders of the Ecuador lawsuit and Hinton.

After Hinton wrote in a press release about his wife’s participation in a “green technology” panel discussion that failed to describe Chevron’s environmental disaster in Ecuador, Alex Thorne created a separate website called “Hinton Communications Watch” that was designed to intimidate Hinton into stopping her work for the Ecuadorian indigenous communities, said Hinton. Alex Thorne later took down the websites and at the time apologized to Hinton.

This is not Chevron’s first attempt to use the image of independent journalists as cover for its campaign to undermine the legal claims of the impoverished Ecuadorian communities, said Hinton.

Last year, Chevron was caught trying to pay American free lance journalist Mary Cudahee $20,000 to spy on the plaintiffs in Ecuador by pretending she was conducting research for an article. Cudahee exposed the effort in The Atlantic.

In 2009, just days before a 60 Minutes segment critical of Chevron’s misconduct in Ecuador was slated to air, the company posted on the internet a pro-Chevron corporate video on Ecuador narrated by former CNN correspondent Gene Randall that was designed to look like a legitimate news broadcast. Chevron hid its role in paying for the production of Randall’s video until it was exposed by The New York Times.

Nor is Chevron shy about pushing the envelope when attacking its many vocal critics on the Ecuador issue.

Chevron CEO Watson ordered the arrest of five shareholder critics at the company’s 2010 annual meeting; Chevron took out newspaper advertisements attacking the U.S.-based Goldman Foundation for awarding its prestigious environmental prize to advocates for the Ecuadorian victims of Chevron’s human rights abuses; and Chevron recently filed a racketeering lawsuit in the U.S. federal court against 47 Ecuadorian villagers and their lawyers that named Amazon Watch as a “co-conspirator”.

Hinton noted that Chevron has been advised by CRC Public Relations, which launched the Swift Boat attacks ads that targeted 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry. CRC has close ties to the far right of the Republican Party and is a darling of the Tea Party movement.

CRC is one of at least six public relations firms and four corporate law firms used by Chevron General Counsel R. Hewitt Pate to deal with negative fallout from the Ecuador judgment, apparently the largest environmental liability in history other than the BP Gulf spill, said Hinton. Pate is a former high-level political appointee in the U.S. Department of Justice under President George W. Bush and is the person responsible for Chevron’s Ecuador litigation strategy, she added.