A recent story in Esquire paints an awful picture of corporate-government corruption. In it, they interview Steven Donziger, a lawyer and environmental activist who has been under house arrest for almost two years. Why? Because Chevron’s lawyers were assigned by a New York federal judge to prosecute him after he won against Chevron in a foreign court, and he refuses to turn over his computer and phone.
According to the article, Donziger has been fighting Texaco, and more recently Chevron, on behalf of indigenous people and rural farmers in Ecuador. In what some call the “Amazon Chernobyl,” the company was accused of dumping 16 billion gallons of toxic waste in the region. Now, cancer is common among the local population. Originally, he sued for them in a New York court, but Texaco successfully fought to have the suit moved to Ecuador. In Ecuador, Donziger’s team of Ecuadorian lawyers won against the company, and they were ordered to pay almost $10 billion.
Later, Donziger says Chevron (which had bought Texaco) spent $2 million moving a former Ecuadorian judge to the United States. He then alleged that Donziger paid Ecuadorian judges a bribe to win the case. This allowed Chevron to sue him in court under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. This led to a New York judge, Lewis A. Kaplan, declaring the Ecuador trial a result of fraud, which meant Donziger would owe Chevron millions of dollars that he didn’t have.
Since then, the former Ecuadorian judge recanted his accusations, saying there was no bribery, but the case still stands in U.S. courts.
Because he couldn’t pay the fine, Judge Kaplan ordered him to hand over his phones and computers so that Chevron could determine whether he was hiding any money. Donziger says this would violate his attorney-client privilege, and appealed the order, but his non-compliance led to a misdemeanor criminal charge (contempt of court), punishable by a maximum of 6 months in jail.
Donziger says the judge sent the accusation of contempt to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who declined to prosecute it, saying they didn’t have the resources to prosecute (Donziger implies that this was because they didn’t think they’d win). Because the prosecutor refused to prosecute, the judge assigned a private law office (who have also represented Chevron in 2018) to prosecute and assigned a judge with indirect Chevron financial ties to oversee the criminal case (bypassing the normal random judge assignment process).
Donziger requested a jury trial, and both judges denied it. Thus, if all this is true, now a judge with Chevron ties will serve as judge-and-jury, while the Chevron-tied prosecutor will fight against him in court over a case that originally relied upon the false testimony of a witness who benefited greatly from Chevron. Now, he’s been on house arrest for over 500 days for a “crime” that carries a maximum sentence of 180 days.
“As he has for decades, Donziger is trying to shift attention away from the facts,” a Chevron spokesman told Esquire, when asked about this.
Let’s Talk About These Facts
If everything we’ve read at Esquire is true, it’s a very bad thing for our “justice” system.
First off, it makes a total mockery of the system. Chevron accused Donziger of bribing judges in Ecuador, essentially saying he was corrupt, but their actions since have been the epitome of corruptness. To have a trial where people with ties to Chevron lied to get the ball rolling and now other people with ties to the company are serving as judge, jury, and prosecutor is a farce. It’s a kangaroo court. No reasonable observer can say this is legitimate.
The obvious problem here is that it has a chilling effect. People thinking of suing Chevron for anything wrong they do will now have to think twice. If they lose against Chevron in court, they lose. If they win against the company in court, Chevron will do anything they can to ruin you, no matter how corrupt or evil. And the U.S. justice system? Good luck with that. Chevron apparently owns them, too.
This can only lead to Chevron getting away with more misdeeds. In the Esquire article, they say Chevron sold all assets in Ecuador and told the country that they will never pay the judgement. In other countries, they’re not having the “luck” they had in the United States courts. They’re particularly worried about Canada, where they have a lot of assets that can be seized, after Ecuador took them to court there. But in the United States, Chevron has nothing to worry about (yet).
Perhaps more concerning was that it took years for this to hit the press. A case that’s so corrupt and awful should be big news, and should have been big news for the last two years. From what I can see, the big outlets didn’t touch it, leaving it to a magazine to bring out now. Are they afraid of Chevron?
Personally, if this is all true, I think everyone involved should be imprisoned. The lying Ecuadorian judge, the Chevron execs who moved him to the States, and the corrupt judges shouldn’t be walking free. It flies in the face of a fair society for things like this to even happen, and it’s even worse that they are still serving in positions where they could do it to someone else later. They’ve all conspired to deny a man his civil rights under color of law, and that is only one of the felonies they’ve committed.
The United States cannot function like it should without fair and lawful courts, and that’s what appears to be at stake here. If we get to the point where we feel like we don’t have a functioning justice system, good people will have to find justice by other means, and nobody wants to live in a country where that’s happening.
If one environmental activist isn’t safe from this all happening, then none of us are safe from it. For that reason, we all need to speak up and demand that those responsible for this be given the fair trial they tried to keep Donziger from getting.