Chevron and U.S. Law Firm Gibson Dunn Face Possible DOJ Probe Over Witness Bribery and Fraud in Pollution Case

Indigenous Groups Asking for Immediate Action by U.S. Department of Justice on Criminal Referral Letter Related to False Witness Testimony

NEW YORK, NY - Chevron and its U.S. law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher are facing new allegations the company engaged in witness bribery and obstruction of justice in the U.S. to thwart collection of a $12 billion Ecuador pollution judgment that found the oil giant had deliberately dumped billions of gallons of toxic oil waste onto Indigenous ancestral lands.

Those implicated in Chevron’s alleged witness bribery and corruption scandal include several high-profile U.S. lawyers, including the head of litigation at the Gibson Dunn firm, Randy Mastro, and the General Counsel of Chevron, R. Hewitt Pate, according to evidence presented to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Gibson Dunn was sanctioned by the High Court of London for fabricating evidence to frame a political opponent of the President of Djibouti, one of the firm’s clients, and has been accused of engaging in “legal thuggery” by the Montana Supreme Court. (See here.) 

The allegations against Chevron, and the evidence to support them, are contained in a criminal referral letter sent to the DOJ by Steven R. Donziger, a lawyer (see here) who has represented the rainforest communities for two decades and who has been the target of a vicious Chevron retaliation campaignafter his clients won the landmark pollution judgment in 2011. Donziger recently attracted wide support from major environmental groups after his law license in New York was suspended without a hearing based largely on Chevron’s false evidence presented to a U.S. federal court in the company’s retaliatory civil “racketeering” case. (Donziger is contesting the decision to suspend his law license.)

To persuade the DOJ to investigate Chevron and Gibson Dunn, the Ecuadorian Indigenous peoples are now renewing their call for an independent review of what they say is undisputed documentary and forensic evidence of Chevron’s attempt to corrupt the case and avoid having to pay for a clean-up of an environmental disaster so large it is known as the “Amazon Chernobyl”. (See summary of the evidence.) Among Chevron’s illegal acts was paying at least $2 million – and possibly as much as $5 million -- to an admittedly corrupt Ecuadorian witness who admitted he lied under oath during the racketeering trial about a supposed “bribe” of the Ecuador trial judge.

The witness, Alberto Guerra, later recanted much of his testimony and no corroborating evidence was ever presented by Chevron. Prior to striking a deal to get paid by Chevron , the Ecuadorian was making $500 monthly in Ecuador. (For background on Guerra’s false testimony, see this letter to the DOJ and this legal brief from Earth Rights filed before the U.S. Supreme Court.)

Lawyers for the Ecuadorians initially contacted the DOJ in November 2017 but have received no formal response. 

“Tens of thousands of lives are at stake due to Chevron’s use of corrupt evidence to avoid a clean-up of its massive pollution of our ancestral lands,” said Carmen Cartuche, the President of the Amazon Defense Coalition (FDA), the non-profit coalition of 80 Indigenous groups and farmer communities that won the environmental judgment against Chevron on behalf of 30,000 people. “It’s long past time for the U.S. authorities to stop turning a blind eye toward Chevron’s unethical and illegal conduct targeting Ecuadorian Indigenous peoples and their supporters, as orchestrated by its law firm Gibson Dunn and others.” 

Cartuche added that the Ecuadorians have filed complaints against Chevron in the United States and plan to do so with authorities in other countries where the company has operations. Cartuche said the broader plan is to make the world a “hostile business environment” for Chevron until it is held fully accountable for its toxic dumping in Ecuador and complies with the court-mandated clean-up order. 

“This effort with the Department of Justice is just the beginning of a series of critical actions we are going to announce in the next few months with allies in the region that are designed to make life for the company exceedingly difficult in certain jurisdictions,” Cartuche said. “Chevron has attacked Indigenous groups in Ecuador for almost five decades, leaving behind a trail of tears and wrecked cultures that’s almost impossible to fathom in its degree of cruelty. We are no longer going to sit back and put all of our trust in a legal process that Chevron continually manipulates and abuses with its vast wealth, while our people suffer and die at Chevron’s hands.”

Chevron has suffered a series of devastating courtroom setbacks in the matter in recent years, but the company uses a policy of forum shopping (see here) to try to delay the final outcome.

The environmental case originally was filed in the U.S. in 1993. Chevron successfully fought to have the case litigated in Ecuador after the company promised to accept jurisdiction there and abide by any adverse judgment. When the evidence mounted against it in Ecuador, Chevron sold its assets in the country and filed the retaliatory “racketeering” (known as RICO) case against Donziger, other attorneys, and all 47 of the named plaintiffs in the case. 

In the meantime in Ecuador, where Chevron had accepted jurisdiction to avoid a jury trial in the U.S., four layers of courts ruled that Chevron is liable for the deliberate dumping of billions of gallons of life-threatening oil waste into rainforest waterways relied on by locals for their drinking water. Ecuador’s Constitutional Court last July affirmed the judgment unanimously. In Canada, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 2015 that the Ecuadorians had the right to enforce their judgment, rejecting a Chevron jurisdictional challenge. The Ecuadorians also won two unanimous rulings from the Ontario Court of Appeal.

In addition, 36 major institutional shareholders from Chevron have pressured CEO Michael Wirth to explore a settlement. (See here.) That follows a stinging rebuke of Wirth’s leadership from two shareholder resolutions related to his mishandling of the case that received overwhelming support at the company’s 2018 annual meeting. 

In the 2017 referral letter to the DOJ, the Ecuadorians presented evidence “suggesting a conspiracy by Chevron and certain of its counsel and executives to engage in witness bribery, perjury and obstruction of justice” to defraud courts and other judicial bodies. Among the evidence:

  • As of 2013, Chevron had paid $2 million in cash and benefits to the admittedly corrupt Ecuadorian witness, Guerra. The company also gave him a housing allowance, a car, health insurance, and paid his income taxes while moving his entire extended family to the U.S.  Chevron also paid the  legal fees for Guerra and his extended family.

  • Discussing his negotiations with Chevron and the Gibson Dunn lawyers with a friend who secretly taped the conversation, Guerra said:  “Money talks, but gold screams.”

  • Chevron lawyers at Gibson Dunn, led by Mastro, coached Guerra for a staggering 53 days prior to the presentation of his false testimony in a U.S. federal court in 2013 during the company’s civil RICO case, heard by Judge Lewis A. Kaplan.

  • In 2015, Guerra admitted under cross-examination in a separate arbitration proceeding that he lied repeatedly before Judge Kaplan. Nevertheless, Kaplan credited his testimony to find that a “bribe” had been promised to the Ecuador judge. That finding, based entirely on Guerra’s testimony, has been rejected by multiple courts in Ecuador and Canada.

  • A leading forensics specialist, J. Christopher Racich, examined the computers of the trial judge and concluded that the Ecuador judgment was not “ghostwritten” as the paid Chevron witness Guerra had testified. (See here for background.)

  • The letter to the DOJ also alleges that Chevron used an attorney-intermediary from Miami, Andres Rivero, to offer a $1 million bribe to the trial judge in Ecuador to recant his  decision against the company. 

Among the evidence the FDA presented to the DOJ was a contract signed by Chevron that specifies the payments to Guerra. Federal law clearly prohibits payments to fact witnesses; the Ecuadorians believe Chevron continues to pay Guerra for doing no work, possibly raising the total amount of the bribery to at least $5 million.

More broadly, Chevron has been accused by a coalition of more than 20 prominent civil rights and environmental groups (see here), including the ACLU and Greenpeace, for using a new SLAPP-style corporate playbook designed to silence its critics through litigation. Chevron’s use of forum shopping, retaliatory litigation, and attacks targeting human rights defenders are part of this strategy, said Cartuche.

(For more background on the corrupt acts committed by Chevron and Guerra that was ignored by the Second Circuit, see here and here. For background on the many procedural flaws in Judge Kaplan’s RICO proceeding, see here. For a whistleblower video from Chevron showing fraud by the company’s technical staff during the trial, see here.)