Report Shows Chevron Lawyers at Gibson Dunn Falsified Evidence to Target Steven Donziger in Ecuador Pollution Case

Donziger: Chevron’s Lawyers At Gibson Dunn Committed Fraud and Used Unethical “Kill Step” to Evade $9.5b Ecuador Judgment

NEW YORK, NY - The New York bar’s unprecedented attempt to suspend prominent corporate accountability attorney Steven Donziger without a hearing after he helped Ecuadorian Indigenous peoples win a $9.5 billion environmental judgment against Chevron is based on false testimony from a paid company witness coached 53 days by lawyers at the firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, according to a bombshell report produced by one of the world’s leading forensic computer investigators.

Donziger still maintains his law license and is helping his clients in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest enforce their judgment by trying to seize Chevron’s substantial assets in Canada, where three appellate courts have issued unanimous rulings in their favor. (See here.) But behind the scenes, Chevron’s batallion-sized U.S. legal team – it has included 2,000 lawyers from at least 60 firms at a cost of at least $2 billion – has trained its sites on demonizing Donziger as part of a new corporate “playbook” invented by the company’s attorneys at the Gibson Dunn firm and marketed to scandal-plagued clients facing major liabilities.

(See this article for background on Chevron’s intimidation campaign and here for an article in the Huffington Post about how Chevron’s defense has unraveled.) 

According to multiple sources, the Gibson Dunn marketing playbook involves what the firm calls the “kill step” to defeat the enforcement in the U.S. of civil money judgements obtained from foreign courts. The “kill step” usually involves accusing opposing counsel of “fraud” and other misconduct to try to intimidate them into withdrawing, thereby leaving the corporation’s victims defenseless and unable to continue with their cases. If actual evidence of fraud does not exist, as in the Ecuador matter, the Gibson Dunn lawyers will hire investigators to bribe foreign witnesses to concoct false stories of “fraud” about opposing counsel to be presented in U.S. courts; the firm’s lawyers are theoretically protected from any downside risk by the general inability of U.S. courts to force foreigners to appear or be deposed.

The Gibson Dunn “kill step” is now being deployed against Donziger, who faces an interim suspension by the New York bar after staff attorneys designated him as an “immediate threat to the public order” based on highly disputed testimony from a Chevron-paid witness who has admitted under oath that he repeatedly lied to the company. Prominent members of the legal community, including First Amendment lawyer Marty Garbus and Harvard Law Professor Charles Nesson, expressed “shock” and “dismay” at the bar’s decision to suspend Donziger without a hearing. Donziger is fighting the allegations in a post-suspension hearing that likely will take place in September and be open to the public.

Gibson Dunn used the same “kill step” strategy roughly ten years ago on behalf of the Dole Food Company, which faced major liability in Nicaraguan courts for causing infertility in banana workers after it used an illegal pesticide that had been banned in the United States. According to multiple sources, evidence emerged in the Dole case that Gibson Dunn’s lawyers and investigators engaged in perjury, witness bribery, and fabrication of evidence to have the company’s liability thrown out of a California state court, according to legal documents. A key part of the strategy was an attack campaign leveled against the U.S. lawyer for the Nicaraguan victims, Jorge Dominguez, that included an attempt to have him disbarred, according to lawyers and others who worked on the matter.

Among other violations in the Dole case, Gibson Dunn’s lawyers hired an investigations firm in Mexico (called Investigative Research and headed by ex-CIA agent, Douglas Beard) to recruit and pay a Nicaraguan man, Jamie Gonzalez, to provide a false affidavit that fabricated a meeting attended by the Nicaraguan trial judge where the case supposedly was “fixed” against Dole. Although the meeting never took place, lawyers at the Gibson Dunn firm – including Scott Edelman, Ted Boutrous, and Andrea Neumann, all of whom orchestrated the scheme -- used the fabricated “evidence” of the meeting to have an ethics complaint filed against California lawyer Dominguez, much as the firm is now doing to Donziger with  testimony from an admittedly corrupt witness from Ecuador bribed with at least $2 million from Chevron to concoct his story. (The attempt to disbar Dominguez failed; the attempt to disbar Donziger in New York is pending but he still maintains his law license in another jurisdiction.)

Donziger, a Harvard Law graduate who has not received even a single client complaint in 25 years of legal practice, is fighting back against what he called a “wide-ranging conspiracy” hatched in Chevron’s executive suits and Gibson Dunn’s New York offices to try to taint him with “fraud” by using false or distorted evidence as a way to evade the liability to the Indigenous groups in Ecuador. Those involved in the conspiracy, he said, include Chevron General Counsel R. Hewitt Pate, Gibson Dunn’s chief of litigation Randy Mastro, as well as several Gibson Dunn lawyers who had previously been involved in corrupting the Dole cases, including Neumann and Boutrous. In a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, Donziger laid out evidence that the Gibson Dunn firm and Chevron have carried out a conspiracy to falsify evidence as part of its “kill step” strategy to attack the Ecuador pollution judgment, now worth $12 billion with statutory interest. 

“What Chevron and Gibson Dunn are doing to Steven is lawless and the kind of thing one normally sees in North Korea or Saudi Arabia, not in New York,” said Rex Weyler, the co-founder of Greenpeace and a supporter of the Ecuadorian communities. “It is shocking to witness how the New York judiciary has allowed itself to be used by Chevron and Gibson Dunn as a key arm of the company’s unethical litigation strategy that ultimately is designed to screw over some of the most vulnerable people on the planet who trust and rely on Steven to advocate for them. The Department of Justice needs to open an investigation of this law firm for its pattern of engaging in unethical and even criminal acts in the Ecuador case and others.”

The Gibson Dunn “kill step” in the Ecuador case resulted in a highly controversial civil “racketeering” judgment in 2014 from New York trial judge Lewis A. Kaplan against Donziger and his Ecuadorian clients that was based largely on the false testimony of Chevron’s paid witness, Alberto Guerra. Guerra’s payments have included an enormous monthly salary at least 20 times higher than his prior salary in Ecuador, health care, and the reimbursement of all income tax payments as well as expenses to move his entire family from Ecuador to the United States. Guerra admitted to taking bribes in Ecuador and has been on the Chevron payroll for several years at an undisclosed location in the United States without doing any work other than serving as a witness. (See this summary of Guerra’s perjury and this legal brief documenting Chevron’s and Gibson Dunn’s corrupt conduct.)

Guerra also has admitted under oath that he was coached for 53 days by Gibson Dunn’s lawyers, including Mastro and Avi Weitzman, before he went into Kaplan’s court and accused Donziger of approving a bribe to an Ecuador trial judge so the plaintiffs could “ghostwrite” the judgment against the oil major. Later, Guerra recanted key parts of his testimony under oath in a private arbitration proceeding while a forensic report proved he lied about both the bribe and the allegation that Donziger orchestrated the “ghostwriting” of the judge. Donziger has consistently denied Guerra’s allegations. 

Despite what appear to be the many deep-seated and even fatal problems with Guerra’s testimony, two staff attorneys at the New York bar grievance committee – who oversee attorney conduct – relied on his story about judicial bribery in Ecuador to suspend Donziger from the practice of law without a hearing by designating the New York lawyer an “immediate threat to the public order”. Yet Kaplan’s findings, used by the New York bar in its decision, have been rejected by at least 17 appellate judges in Ecuador and by Canada’s entire Supreme Court when it ruled unanimously in favor of the Ecuadorians in a judgment enforcement action in that country. Four layers of courts in Ecuador – including the country’s Constitutional Court – have affirmed voluminous evidence that the oil major dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste into the rainforest, decimating indigenous groups and causing an outbreak of cancer that has killed or threatens to kill thousands of people.

(See here and here for comments by prominent lawyers, including Harvard Law Professor Charles Nesson and trial attorney Richard Friedman, in support of Donziger. See this article on how Ecuador’s Constitutional Court recently ruled 8-0 to affirm the judgment against Chevron. Here is a summary of the evidence against Chevron.) 

Donziger, who has been widely lauded for his public service work, criticized the New York bar for refusing to consider the extensive evidence that emerged after Kaplan’s trial that renders his findings erroneous or at least highly problematic. Donziger maintains wide support in the legal and environmental communities; several prominent environmental groups and lawyers, including Amazon Watch and Earth Rights International, have weighed in against Chevron with amicus briefs while Greenpeace Founder Weyler calls him a “hero” of the environmental movement. Musician Roger Waters even released a video on behalf of the Ecuadorians criticizing Kaplan.

Among the evidence ignored by the two staff attorneys of the bar grievance committee who are handling the matter – Jorge Dopico and Naomi Goldstein -- is a critical report from noted forensics expert J. Christopher Racich submitted in a parallel private arbitration proceeding initiated by Chevron against Ecuador’s government. The Racich report completely undermines Chevron’s defense strategy and renders Kaplan’s findings that the Ecuador judgment was “ghostwritten” as false, according to Aaron Page, a human rights lawyer who represents the Ecuadorians. (See here for the Racich report proving Chevron’s witness lied and here for a summary of that report.)

Racich’s investigation undermines Kaplan’s core findings that were then used by the bar grievance committee to suspend Donziger as follows: 

  • The report demonstrates that increasing amounts of the Ecuador judgment against Chevron were added to Word documents on the office computers of the Ecuador trial judge and that those documents were edited and saved in painstaking fashion more than 400 times. This corroborates the sworn testimony of the Ecuador trial judge, Nicolas Zambrano, that he wrote the judgment in his office and debunks the testimony of paid Chevron witness Guerra that it was given to the judge on a flash drive just prior to its issuance, after being written by the plaintiffs.
  • There is no evidence from the Ecuador trial judge’s computers that any document was copied from a flash drive to create any part of the trial court judgment, as Chevron paid witness Guerra had claimed in testimony relied on by the New York bar staff attorneys to suspend Donziger. 
  • Chevron’s paid expert, Spencer Lynch, independently examined the same computers and presented no evidence suggesting that any part of the Ecuador trial court judgment was received by trial judge Zambrano via email or from a flash drive – again debunking Guerra’s testimony.
  • There is no document on the computer of Chevron witness Guerra that became the trial court judgment, directly undermining Guerra’s sworn testimony that he edited the judgment on his computer at the behest of the plaintiffs just before it was issued. 

According to the Racich report, the text and metadata of the documents on the computers of Ecuador trial judge Zambrano that contain the trial court judgment show that “these computers were used to create a document, add text to it, edit text within it, and save the document repeatedly over a four-month period of time.” “Furthermore, there is no evidence in the metadata that the versions of the [judgment documents] were provided in any way by Mr. Guerra, Pablo Fajardo [the lead Ecuadorian lawyer for the villagers], or anybody else,” Racich concluded.

Donziger criticized the bar grievance committee for relying on Kaplan’s findings and ignoring the Racich report and other critical evidence, while demanding that his designation as an “immediate threat to the public order” be lifted. He also demanded to be allowed a fact hearing to present the Racich report and other critical evidence that will demonstrate that Kaplan’s findings are erroneous and therefore cannot be used by the bar grievance committee as a basis for attorney discipline, although he believes they could be used as a basis for discipline against the Gibson Dunn lawyers who falsified evidence. Further underscoring the problems with the decision of the New York grievance committee is that the District of Columbia bar has decided to not move against Donziger based on the Kaplan decision given that the many problems with his findings and the fact that several issues involved are still being litigated in Canadian courts.

(For a detailed rebuttal of Kaplan’s erroneous findings, see Chevron’s RICO Fraud.)

“The bar grievance committee needs to demonstrate independence from Judge Kaplan and Chevron’s powerful and unethical law firm and really look hard at the evidence,” said Donziger. “In my opinion, it is a dereliction of duty for the New York grievance committee to assume that obviously flawed findings from a federal judge cannot be questioned when the judge never reviewed the Racich report or other critical evidence before coming to his conclusions, and when his findings have been contradicted by 17 appellate judges in another jurisdiction.

“Further, in my view there is indisputable evidence that Chevron’s lawyers at Gibson Dunn engaged in unethical and criminal activity to frame me with false witness testimony to please their most lucrative client, and that they have done this in other cases as part of a playbook marketed to high-paying corporations,” he added. “This begs the question: why is the New York bar grievance committee not investigating Chevron’s lawyers at Gibson Dunn for their patently unethical conduct, and instead focusing on me, a sole practitioner and human rights advocate?”

Gibson Dunn’s aggressive approach and willingness to cross the ethical line for its clients has frequently backfired against the law firm.

In a case eerily similar to Donziger’s experience, Gibson Dunn recently was sanctioned by the High Court of London for fabricating evidence to try to frame a political opponent of its client, then the President of the African nation of Djoubati. The Montana Supreme Court fined the firm $9.9 million for engaging in “legal thuggery” while a New York federal judge sanctioned Gibson Dunn for engaging in “unacceptable shenanigans” including hiding documents and outright lies. In the Ecuador case, the firm threatened the Ecuador trial judge with prison time unless he ruled in Chevron’s favor. (See this article by Greenpeace’s Weyler for a summary of Gibson Dunn’s many problems.)

Some of Donziger’s defenders, including human rights lawyer Page (see here), say he has been targeted with what is probably the most well-financed corporate retaliation campaign in history. Chevron in 2011 sued Donziger for $60 billion – thought to be the largest potential personal liability ever – before dropping the entire damages claim on the eve of Kaplan’s “racketeering” trial to avoid a jury of impartial fact-finders. Under the U.S. Constitution, a claim not involving money damages can be heard by a judge alone – a fact understood by Chevron that Donziger said guaranteed he would not be able to mount a meaningful defense given Kaplan’s obvious bias in favor of the company. (See this press release and this report for the many procedural and ethical problems with the Kaplan trial.)

The Racich report also corroborates the sworn testimony of Donziger, who repeatedly has said under oath he engaged in no wrongdoing and that Guerra's testimony was false. For Donziger’s main appellate brief challenging Kaplan’s factual findings, see here. 

For purposes of protecting his due process rights and bearing witness to a flawed process, Donziger said he  plans to invite the public to his post-suspension hearing where he will try to reverse the bar’s decision to designate him as an “immediate threat to the public order.” However, the first “referee” appointed to oversee that hearing, corporate defense attorney Paul Doyle, resigned after several prominent lawyers backed Donziger and criticized the lack of due process afforded by the grievance committee. It also turns out that Doyle had represented Union Carbide in the Bhopal disaster in India.