Prominent Lawyers Rally to Support Steven Donziger's Demand that He Be Allowed to Present Evidence of Chevron Fraud

Harvard Professor Nesson Says Evidence Proves Oil Giant “Manufactured a Lie” to Try to Strip Donziger’s Law License to Retaliate for Winning Pollution Case

New York, NY – Three prominent lawyers have rallied behind the demand of human rights attorney Steven Donziger that he be allowed to present compelling new evidence that Chevron committed fraud to try to strip him of his law license as retaliation for helping his Indigenous clients win a landmark $12 billion pollution judgment in Ecuador.

Under pressure from Chevron and a U.S. judge who has tried to attack the Ecuador judgment, staff attorneys at the New York bar grievance office in 2018 designated Donziger “an immediate threat to the public order” and temporarily suspended his law license despite the fact 16 appellate judges in Ecuador have affirmed the pollution findings against Chevron. Donziger had a disciplinary hearing scheduled for December to challenge that designation, but the bar staff lawyers blocked it – an act that Donziger and his supporters say violates the Constitution.

In a legal motion filed this week before a New York state appellate court, Donziger is demanding he be able to challenge findings of Judge Lewis A. Kaplan that formed the basis of his temporary suspension. Kaplan’s finding that the Ecuadorian judge was promised a payment was based entirely on the testimony of an admittedly corrupt Chevron witness, Alberto Guerra, after he was paid $2 million by Chevron and coached by its lawyers for a staggering 53 days prior to taking the stand.

Guerra later admitted he had perjured himself under oath while a forensic analysis proved he lied about a critical issue on which Kaplan based most of his decision. Yet Donziger was still suspended based on Guerra’s testimony, which has been rejected by four layers of courts in Ecuador. The Kaplan findings also have been ignored by Canada’s Supreme Court, which unanimously endorsed an enforcement action filed by the Ecuadorians targeting the company’s assets in that country. Donziger has not had even one client complaint in 25 years of law practice.

New York grievance committee staff attorneys Naomi Goldstein and Jorge Dopico (who oversee attorney licensing in New York) refused even to interview Donziger after he sent them a detailed letter explaining why he believed there was no valid basis to proceed against him. Donziger and the case against Chevron have the backing of several major environmental groups (here), indigenous leaders (here), and a coalition of civil rights groups (here) who are trying to stop a proliferation of corporate-funded harassment lawsuits.

First Amendment litigator and scholar Martin Garbus, who represents Donziger in the bar proceeding, criticized the attorney grievance office that oversees attorney licensing in New York.

“This awful injustice, a dagger in the heart of the Ecuadorian people, is unconstitutional and must be reversed,” he said. “The Ecuadorian people are entitled to the lawyer of their choice, Steven Donziger, who is one of the country’s finest, most decent and most honorable lawyers. Steven’s representation is essential to the Ecuadorian quest for justice and he must be permitted to continue.”

Donziger is also represented by Harvard Law Professor Charles Nesson and Kathleen Mahoney, who teaches at the University of Calgary Law School and is a prominent human rights advocate in Canada who played a leading role in helping to settle the landmark residential schools case in that country. Mahoney has visited Ecuador and met with Chevron’s victims.

“I am representing Steven Donziger because Judge Kaplan’s finding that he is guilty of judicial bribery is a manufactured lie that not even Kaplan stands behind,” said Nesson, who taught Donziger when he was a student at Harvard in 1989. “This is not any sort of basis to take disciplinary action to suspend a lawyer, especially without a hearing where he is not allowed to challenge the finding. This is patently unconstitutional.”

Donziger also has won the support of the London-based human rights group Global Witness. Last year, Global Witness released a statement criticizing the New York bar grievance staff lawyers for violating Donziger’s due process rights. A separate letter the group sent to the grievance office seeking an explanation was ignored.

“It is shocking to note the similarities between this case, and cases we have observed in a myriad of Banana Republics around the world, where official harassment of anyone who threatens the powerful is the norm,” the group wrote. 

The court-appointed referee in Donziger’s disciplinary case, John Horan, had ruled last November that Donziger could challenge Kaplan’s findings and set December 4 for a hearing. “It is an open question whether [Donziger] did receive a full and fair hearing before Judge Kaplan,” Horan found. (The full decision is here.)

The Horan ruling prompted Goldstein and Dopico to rush back to a New York state appellate court to overturn his decision, essentially shutting down Donziger’s ability to present evidence challenging the Kaplan findings that were used as the basis for his temporary suspension four years after they issued.

Chevron has a long history of trying to bully and silence its adversaries in the case. Two weeks ago, more than 20 civil rights groups gave Chevron the “Corporate Bully of the Year” award for its SLAPP-style harassment attacks on Donziger and his Ecuadorian clients. (See here.) In 2015, Chevron won the lifetime Public Eye Award in Davos for being the worst corporation for its refusal to clean up the billions of gallons of toxic waste it dumped in Ecuador, decimating Indigenous groups and causing an outbreak of cancer that puts thousands of people at risk.

After the Ecuador judgment against Chevron issued in 2011, a Chevron official threatened the Ecuadorian villagers with a “lifetime of litigation” if they persisted. Another official admitted that the company’s defense strategy was to “demonize” Donziger. Chevron lawyers – including Andrea Neuman of the Gibson Dunn firm -- have openly lobbied for Donziger’s disbarment.

Donziger has written a criminal referral letter to the U.S. Department of Justice outlining fraud and misconduct committed by the company and its lawyers. 

For more details of the New York bar grievance committee’s handling of the Donziger case, see here. For background on Chevron’s and Judge Kaplan’s attacks on Donziger and his Ecuadorian clients, see this article by Greenpeace co-founder Rex Weyler.