Support Growing for Prominent U.S. Attorney Who Took on Chevron and Was Deemed "Threat to Public Order" by State Bar Officials

Attorney Rick Friedman: Steven Donziger Will Rightly Be Regarded as a Hero; Decision to Deny Hearing Threatens Rights of Lawyers Everywhere

NEW YORK - Support is growing from across the United States and Ecuador for prominent corporate accountability attorney Steven Donziger following the “shocking” decision of the New York bar to suspend him as a “immediate threat to the public order” without a hearing after he played an instrumental role in winning a landmark $9.5 billion pollution judgment on behalf of Ecuadorian rainforest communities against Chevron. 

Richard Friedman, a nationally-known Harvard-educated trial attorney from Seattle who has represented Donziger, joined several members of the legal community in criticizing NY bar staff attorneys Jorge Dopico and Naomi Goldstein for characterizing Donziger as an “immediate threat to the public order” based on the erroneous and disputed civil findings of New York federal Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, which relied largely on false testimony from an admittedly corrupt Chevron witness (Alberto Guerra) paid $2 million by the company. In 25 years of law practice, Donziger has not received a single client complaint and has been honored with numerous testimonials for his public service work.

(Here is a detailed documentation of Chevron’s witness fraud and bribery of Guerra. Here is a criminal referral letter to the U.S. Department of Justice of Chevron and its lawyers at the firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher for bribing a witness to present false evidence. Here is background on Gibson Dunn’s many ethical violations, including the fabrication of evidence in a prior case. Here is a summary of Chevron’s intimidation campaign written by Greenpeace co-founder Rex Weyler.)

In comments last week, other attorneys and activists – including esteemed First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus, Harvard Law Professor Charles Nesson, human rights lawyer Aaron Page, and Greenpeace Co-founder Rex Weyler – said they were “shocked” by the New York Bar’s decision to suspend Donziger. The designation as a “threat to the public order” allowed the bar staff attorneys to short-circuit the legal process and deny Donziger a hearing, despite his attempt to submit extensive evidence about how the full body of evidence undermines Kaplan’s findings. Donziger’s position that Chevron dumped billions of gallons of toxic oil waste into the Amazon to save an estimated $5 billion in costs has been validated by 17 judges from three appellate courts in Ecuador, including in an 8-0 decision by the country’s Constitutional Court issued days ago. Chevron had insisted the trial take place in Ecuador and had accepted jurisdiction there. 

Friedman, the author of four bestselling legal books and the former President of the prestigious Inner Circle of Advocates, said the designation of Donziger as a “threat to the public order” serves Chevron’s interests in trying to taint the Ecuador judgment and suggests political behavior by the staff attorneys more in keeping with an authoritarian dictatorship where opponents of the establishment are designated as enemies of the state and denied the opportunity to work or earn a livelihood.  By taking away Donziger's law license, it will be difficult for him to continue to earn a living and fight for his clients in Ecuador, which was Chevron’s goal all along, said Friedman.

Friedman added that he was “utterly dismayed” by the bar’s decision to deny Donziger the opportunity to present the ample evidence available to challenge Kaplan’s findings before imposing punishment.  “This type of decision not only violates fundamental due process, it is not in keeping with the American tradition of using judicial processes as a truth-seeking exercise,” said Friedman. “It reminds me of something that might happen in Russia under Putin or Turkey under Erdogan, but it should not be happening in New York.  The goal of the New York bar staff attorneys seems to be to suppress evidence that might prove Judge Kaplan got his decision wrong, not to seek the truth or ensure a fair adjudication.  That’s a sad commentary on the state of the New York bar and unfortunately our legal profession because Steven Donziger should rightly be regarded as a hero for his work in Ecuador. This reflects far more poorly on the New York bar and Judge Kaplan than Steven Donziger, a person whom I deeply respect.” 

Donziger submitted in his defense a 12-page letter, lengthy legal brief, and hundreds of pages of exhibits but all were discarded by Dopico and Goldstein, who refused to engage Donziger or even interview him. Despite having at least 20 staff attorneys in the office, the pair also appointed as special pro bono “prosecutor” of Donziger in the bar disciplinary process a private corporate defense lawyer, George Davidson, from a corporate law firm with extensive ties to the oil and gas industry. Further, five judges of the First Department – an intermediate appellate court that oversees bar discipline in Manhattan – also ignored Donziger’s submissions in issuing a terse and perfunctory one-page order on July 11 validating the bar grievance committee’s request for Donziger's immediate suspension.

It turns out that six of Judge Kaplan’s colleagues on New York’s federal trial bench in Manhattan, led by Judge Kevin P. Castel, had sent a referral letter urging Dopico to disbar Donziger without a hearing based on their colleague's findings.  Donziger said the Castel letter, which ignored the many problems with Kaplan’s decision, was not in keeping with the judicial obligation of impartiality and was highly inappropriate, although it created enormous pressure for the bar staff attorneys to move against him.  

“Bar staff attorneys answer by and large to judges,” he said. “When six federal judges are urging disbarment based on a high-profile decision of a colleague that has been contradicted by courts in other countries and whom they are obviously trying to protect, I would imagine it would be difficult for a bar staff attorney to resist the pressure. But that does not excuse the bar for refusing to give me a hearing where I can present critical and highly probative evidence.”  

Friedman was blunt in his assessment.

“This decision by the New York bar affects the due process rights of all lawyers, everywhere in the country, and it should not be allowed to stand,” he said.  “It is patently unfair to impose any sort of automatic discipline on a lawyer, much less a suspension, based on civil findings made without a jury and without giving that lawyer a chance to present evidence challenging those findings in the bar disciplinary process – especially when those findings already are disputed by the findings of other courts and Chevron’s own star witness admitted he perjured himself on the stand.”

“Even worse, I know from personal experience and from studying the case closely that there is ample evidence to prove Judge Kaplan’s findings are either false, based on witness testimony paid for by Chevron, or the result of a completely decontextualized reading by Judge Kaplan of foreign law in Ecuador,” said Friedman, who noted that Kaplan also refused to consider any of the environmental evidence against Chevron relied on by the Ecuadorian courts for their decisions against the company. “What is undisputed is that three layers of courts in Ecuador that had access to far more evidence than Judge Kaplan contradicted his findings.  The fact the bar grievance committee doesn’t want to grant a hearing given this extraordinary context not only is unfair to Steven Donziger, but it threatens the due process rights of lawyers everywhere.” 

Although cited by the Bar to suspend Donziger without a hearing, Kaplan’s decision has been largely disproven after evidence emerged that Chevron paid the exorbitant sums to Guerra, a former Ecuadorian judge booted from the bench after he admitted taking bribes. Guerra was moved with his family by Chevron to the United States and later admitted lying on the stand after being coached for 53 days by Chevron lawyers headed by Randy Mastro at Gibson Dunn firm.  Kaplan based his core findings largely on Guerra’s false testimony. 

In response to the Wall Street Journal, whose editorial page lauded the bar committee’s decision to suspend Donziger, Friedman wrote: “There are those who believe American corporations should be able to treat the people and environment in less-developed countries as ‘disposable,’ as unworthy of care or respect. They believe our own economic interests justify whatever harm we do to others. And then there are those, like Steven Donziger, who believe this entrenched attitude needs to change, or we will destroy the world.  

“Like many leaders in the abolitionist, suffragette, union and civil rights movements, Steven Donziger has paid (and will pay) an enormous personal price for trying to change our culture. But our culture will change, and he will rightly be regarded as a hero.”

Rex Weyler, the co-founder of Greenpeace and another friend of Donziger, also called Donziger a “hero” for standing up to Chevron. “This is always the way the status quo power structure protects its own,” said Weyler. “The more frightened they are by the truth, the greater their lies. They did this to anti-slavery activists centuries ago, to the suffragettes, to Ghandi and Martin Luther King, and to Indigenous leaders throughout the world.

“This shameless pandering by the NY judiciary to power and money will be exposed in time,” said Weyler.

In Ecuador, several leaders of the rainforest communities have sent letters of support to Donziger, who remains a member of the District of Columbia bar and who plans to appeal the New York decision.

One such letter came from Carmen Cartuche, a community leader who serves as President of the Amazon Defense Coalition In Ecuador – the grass roots organization in the rainforest that brought suit against Chevron. She wrote to Donziger, who represents the group as it seeks to collect the Ecuador judgment in Canada: “As the representative of the FDA, I cannot hide my indignation over the injustice that American courts are committing against you. You have dedicated more than 25 years of your career fighting for and defending human rights, especially for the Amazon communities in Ecuador who continue to be gravely harmed by the actions of Chevron.  I simply do not understand how U.S. ‘justice’, instead of condemning the company that has caused so much damage to the natural world and to the lives of so many peoples, sanctions the person trying to protect the natural world and the victims of Chevron. It is a very poor reflection on the United States of America, but perfectly consistent with the values of the Chevron Corporation as we know them.”

In a statement issued on July 11 in response to his interim suspension, Donziger said, “The case on which the New York bar rests its decision to suspend me without a hearing is based almost completely on false testimony paid for Chevron and presented by an admittedly corrupt witness coached 53 days by company lawyers. The entire case before Judge Kaplan was designed by Chevron to retaliate against me for my role in holding it accountable for the deliberate dumping of billions of gallons of toxic waste in Ecuador, decimating Indigenous peoples and creating an environmental catastrophe that continues to cause grave harm to vulnerable communities.  I will continue to fight for my clients while appealing this decision.”

The NY bar also announced the appointment of Paul Doyle, a corporate defense lawyer who represented Union Carbide in the Bhopal disaster, as the “referee” to determine whether Donziger will be disbarred based on Kaplan’s findings. Donziger said he is assembling a legal team to defend him in his appeal of the bar’s decision.