Amnesty International Demands Criminal Investigation of Chevron Over Witness Bribery and Fraud in Ecuador Pollution Litigation
Questions Raised About Allegations That Oil Giant and U.S. Judge Used False Testimony to Attack Landmark Judgment and Human Rights Defender Donziger
Washington, DC – Amnesty International and seven other prominent anti-corruption groups are demanding that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigate Chevron for engaging in witness bribery and fraud to target human rights defender Steven Donziger to evade a $12b pollution judgment awarded in 2013 to Indigenous groups in Ecuador.
Amnesty and the other anti-corruption groups asked the DOJ in a letter to “open an investigation of Chevron Corporation and its attorneys based on credible evidence of apparently corrupt conduct related to retaliatory litigation targeting Ecuadorian plaintiffs in the Lago Agrio case and human rights lawyer and activist Steven Donziger.”
“Chevron’s lie about the legitimate Ecuadorian verdict is the basis for its ongoing violations of human rights, and Steven Donziger is the latest victim,” said Paul Paz y Mino of Amazon Watch, who published a blog this week supporting the Amnesty letter.
Leaders of the Indigenous groups in Ecuador that won the judgment have long maintained they have evidence proving that Chevron and its law firm Gibson Dunn paid an admittedly corrupt Ecuadorian witness $2 million to testify under oath in the United States that the judgment in Ecuador was obtained by bribery. The witness, Alberto Guerra, later recanted his story and there is no independent evidence that a bribe occurred.
Legal representatives of the Ecuadorians have demanded that Guerra be arrested and extradited to Ecuador to stand trial for conspiring with Chevron to engage in bribery and fraud. In the meantime, Chevron has used the Guerra testimony to convince a pro-business U.S. trial judge, Lewis A. Kaplan, to allow the company to attack Donziger and funders of the case with subpoenas and demands that they turn over all their case-related documents.
Donziger has refused Kaplan’s order that he turn over his computer and cell phone to Chevron even though the judge has threatened to jail him unless he complies. In retaliation, Kaplan fined Donziger $200,000 per day and ordered him to surrender his passport, effectively cutting him off from meeting with clients in Ecuador or with attorneys in Canada who are enforcing the judgment against company assets.
In a statement, Donziger has said that turning over his electronic devices to Chevron would violate his core Constitutional rights to advocacy as well as privileges to confidentiality held by his clients. He said Chevron is trying to create an Orwellian-style “permanent spying mechanism” to monitor his activities as a way to intimidate supporters of the case and to undermine the enforcement of the judgment in Canada. The Canada Supreme Court has issued a unanimous decision backing the right of the Ecuadorians to try to seize Chevron’s assets.
In the letter dated June 24, Amnesty International Secretary General Kumi Naidoo asked the DOJ to look into what it called “deeply disturbing” facts regarding the Chevron witness payments to Guerra. The letter also asks that lawyers at the firm Gibson Dunn, who coached Guerra for 53 days prior to his false testimony, be investigated. They include Randy Mastro, Avi Weitzman, and Andrea Neuman, among others.
“These facts as outlined in the Global Witness and Donziger letters are critically important to the fair administration of justice in any country, but they are of particular importance to our organizations given that we engage in human rights, corporate accountability, and anti-corruption work,” said the letter.
Also signing on to the call for the investigation of Chevron was Annie Leonard, the Executive Director of Greenpeace USA; Ginger Cassady, Program Director at the Rainforest Action Network; Bill Twist, a founder of the Pachamam Alliance; Nicholas Hildyard, Director of the Corner House in the U.K.; Olanrewaju Suraju, the Chairperson of a leading Nigerian human rights organization; and Antonio Tricarico, the Program Director of the Italian human rights group Common Italy.
The Amnesty letter follows two other demands from prominent human rights groups to the DOJ for the same investigation – one from the London-based anti-corruption organization Global Witness (here), which called the Guerra witness payments a “major red flag” for corruption. The other letter (here), written by Donziger on behalf of his clients in Ecuador, outlined the specific evidence of Chevron’s corruption uncovered by the legal team for the Ecuadorians.
The Amazon Defense Coalition (FDA), the grass roots organization in Ecuador’s Amazon that won the judgment against Chevron, has long warned that ancestral lands the size of Rhode Island have been largely destroyed by Chevron’s toxic dumping and that Chevron lawyers at the Gibson Dunn firm have engaged in fraud to cover it up. The FDA says recent evidence indicates that Chevron as of 2018 had likely paid at least $5 million in cash and benefits to Guerra since 2013, said Patricio Salazar, a lawyer for the FDA.
Chevron was found liable by four layers of courts in Ecuador for deliberately dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste when it operated in the country from 1964 to 1992. Chevron had insisted the trial take place in Ecuador and had accepted jurisdiction there after promising to pay any adverse judgment.
Simon Taylor, a founder of Global Witness who also requested the DOJ investigation, said the Chevron payments have many of the usual telltale signs of corruption.
“I have been investigating corruption in the extractive industries for more than two decades and throughout that time, I cannot think of a more blatant example of a conflict of interest,” said Taylor. “As I understand it, U.S. law prohibits payments to witnesses other than for travel and basic support during testimony. How can payments on this scale be legitimate?
“When one takes into account this Chevron witness is an admittedly corrupt former judge – facts known at the time of the civil racketeering trial – I simply cannot understand how such a witness could ever have been considered credible by Judge Kaplan. Taking this into account along with other serious potential irregularities involving Chevron’s lawyers, it would be utterly untenable for the DOJ not to open an investigation of this critically important matter.”
The letters from prominent independent organizations represent a major setback for Chevron, which currently faces the judgment enforcement lawsuit in Canada where it maintains an estimated $15 billion worth of assets. Canada’s Supreme Court authorized that action in a unanimous opinion in 2015 and the Ecuadorians hope to force Chevron to trial in the coming months, where they plan to present evidence of the company’s witness bribery and fraud.
Taylor, the director of Global Witness, said “we have called for an investigation in our letter, and this is all the more urgent given the extraordinary efforts by Chevron and its hundreds of lawyers to target Mr. Donziger, which are taking place as a I write – efforts that in the absence of a better explanation ... would appear to be based on corrupt and fraudulent claims. In our view the Kaplan trial and a separate bar proceeding against Mr. Donziger are Kafkaesque given that the lawyer had his license temporarily suspended without any hearing based on what would appear to be fraudulent testimony from Mr. Guerra. How on earth is it credible to remove a lawyer’s right to practice law based on a fraudulent proposition?”
Carmen Cartuche, the President of the FDA and a community leader in Ecuador, praised Global Witness for demanding the investigation. “Judge Kaplan clearly encouraged Chevron’s acts of corruption and the company’s unfounded attacks on our lawyer, Steven Donziger, in an attempt to deprive us of counsel,” she said. “This must be investigated by U.S. authorities.”
“More broadly, thousands of lives in Ecuador are threatened due to Chevron’s use of corrupt evidence to avoid a clean-up of its massive pollution of our ancestral lands,” added Cartuche. “Chevron’s litigation games appear to have turned into crimes.”
Implicated in Chevron’s alleged misconduct in the Ecuador litigation are several high-profile U.S. lawyers, including the head of litigation at the Gibson Dunn firm, Mastro, and the General Counsel of Chevron, R. Hewitt Pate. Various courts have determined that lawyers at Gibson Dunn have fabricated evidence in other cases and have engaged in “legal thuggery” on behalf of the firm’s scandal-plagued corporate clients.
Guerra, the Chevron witness, admitted he had lied repeatedly under oath and a separate forensic analysis proved he lied, but Judge Kaplan – a pro-business judge who had undisclosed financial ties to Chevron -- nevertheless ruled in favor of the oil giant, contradicting the findings of 16 appellate judges from three separate appellate courts in Ecuador.
Donziger has been the target of a vicious Chevron retaliation campaign; the company has admitted in various emails that its main defense to the case is to “demonize” him. 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 and Guerra’s now-recanted testimony. (Donziger, who never had a single client complaint in 25 years of law practice, is contesting the decision to suspend his law license with a hearing scheduled to begin Sept. 17 in Manhattan.)
In Ecuador, appellate judges from three layers of courts have rejected Judge Kaplan’s findings, including the country’s Constitutional Court in a unanimous ruling last July. In addition, 12 appellate judges in Canada have unanimously rejected a Chevron attempt to use Judge Kaplan’s decision to thwart the enforcement action in that country. Yet Chevron continues to use the Kaplan decision to target Donziger, a Harvard Law graduate who lives in New York and who has taken more than 250 trips to Ecuador over the course of the litigation to meet with his clients.
Adding to the woes of Chevron management, 36 major institutional shareholders from Chevron representing $109 billion in assets under management 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 litigation that received overwhelming support at the company’s 2019 annual meeting.
Chevron also 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 the Ecuadorians through harassing litigation. Chevron’s use of forum shopping and its targeting of human rights defenders with false evidence are part of this strategy, said the group, which recently awarded Chevron its “Corporate Bully of the Year” prize for its attacks on Donziger and the Ecuadorians.
(For more background on the corrupt acts committed by Chevron, see here and here. For background on the many flaws in Judge Kaplan’s proceeding, see here. For a whistleblower video from Chevron showing fraud by the company, see here.)