Last week, a federal judge ruled that a $9.5 billion judgment for environmental damage in Ecuador could not be enforced against Chevron. American environmental lawyers had brought suit against Chevron for polluting the Amazon basin in Ecuadorean courts, which in turn handed down the astronomical judgment. But U.S. District judge Lewis Kaplan concluded that the Ecuadorean judgment could not be enforced in America, because the evidence that the plaintiffs’ lawyers were corrupt was “voluminous.” Chevron presented evidence of bribe payments, coded emails, and secret meetings with Ecuadorean judges—a sinister plot that would “normally come only out of Hollywood,” wrote Kaplan in his 497-page ruling.
In fact, this case did come out of Hollywood. Mark Hemingway’s article last week on the truthiness of politically charged documentaries (“A Documentary in Name Only”) noted that Chevron’s RICO suit against the corrupt attorneys came about in part because they subpoenaed the raw footage from an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker who made a documentary about the case. It turns out that the raw footage—not included in the film—showed the plaintiffs’ lawyers engaged in dubious conduct. The outtakes even showed the lead attorney, Steven Donziger, talking about intimidating an Ecuadorean judge. The lawyer said it would be good if the judge feared for his life.
From there, it all started unraveling. In the end, Kaplan concluded that the legal team was responsible for writing the multibillion-dollar judgment and the Ecuadorean judge merely signed his name to it. A former Ecuadorean judge, Alberto Guerra, testified he’d been paid to ghostwrite the opinion. And Chevron’s legal team pointed out that sections of the judgment had been copied word-for-word from internal documents held by Donziger’s legal team.
Donziger has responded to the stinging rebuke by accusing the judge of “implacable hostility” directed at him personally and of having no respect for Ecuador’s legal system. In Judge Kaplan’s defense, the evidence would suggest Donziger is an unlikable bully, and there’s little reason to respect the legal system of a country known for its corruption and judicial malfeasance.
Along with the initial $18 billion judgment against Chevron in 2011, that same year an Ecuadorean court heard a defamation case brought against the publishers of the newspaper El Universo by Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president. “All four defendants were found guilty of aggravated defamation and sentenced to three years in prison and an unprecedented fine of $40 million,” notes Freedom House. “International human rights and press freedom organizations, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the United Nations denounced the court decision as a clear effort to intimidate the press.” Correa further tried to hire a Spanish firm to lodge frivolous copyright claims in order to remove documentary outtakes from YouTube that blew holes in the case against Chevron.
Chevron is still engaged in arbitration over this matter, but it’s worth noting the pollution in question was the result of a joint project between Texaco (later purchased by Chevron) and the state-owned oil company Petroecuador. Texaco reached a settlement on the matter in 1998. Nonetheless, the pillars of the liberal base—environmentalists, trial lawyers, and Hollywood—all appeared to line up against Chevron, when the case was far from black and white. Unable to deny evidence of his own wrongdoing, Donziger’s defense boiled down to asserting his transgressions are trivial because all right thinking people know oil companies are irredeemably evil. Judge Kaplan didn’t buy it: “Justice is not served by inflicting injustice. The ends do not justify the means. There is no ‘Robin Hood’ defense to illegal and wrongful conduct. And the defendants’ ‘this-is-the-way-it-is-done-in-Ecuador’ excuses—[are] actually a remarkable insult to the people of Ecuador.”