In New SLAPP Attack, Chevron Targets Wife and Son of Human Rights Lawyer After He Won Ecuador Pollution Judgment

Chevron’s “Mob-style” Tactics Criticized as Indigenous Peoples Continue to Suffer Death from Five Decades of the Company’s Pollution

New York, NY – Using an order from a conflicted U.S. trial judge with financial ties to the oil industry, Chevron deployed at least seven lawyers this week to help depose the wife of human rights attorney Steven Donziger with a series of harassing questions as the company stepped up its SLAPP-style attacks on the advocate who helped Indigenous peoples in Ecuador win a landmark $12 billion pollution judgment.

Chevron also subpoenaed bank records from an account used to help pay tuition expenses for Donziger’s 12-year-old son as part of what the advocate called a “wholesale Mob-style assault” by the oil giant on his family’s privacy and financial well-being with the ultimate goal of forcing him off the case. Chevron also forced Donziger’s brother-in-law to sit for a lengthy deposition as retaliation for loaning the advocate money to pay litigation expenses to fend off Chevron’s attacks.  

(SLAPP lawsuits are used by corporations to harass critics to silence their advocacy. Background on the conflicts of the U.S. judge, Lewis A. Kaplan, is here and here. The name of Donziger’s wife has been withheld at her request for privacy reasons.) 

Chevron’s latest SLAPP attacks are taking place as five Indigenous groups and 80 farmer communities in the affected area of Ecuador’s Amazon continue to suffer from high cancer rates caused by the company’s pollution, as documented by various independent studies and in this photo essay by the journalist Lou Dematteis. Chevron operated in Ecuador from 1964 to 1992, leaving behind roughly 1,000 unlined toxic waste pits that continue to leech into soils and waterways, according to the evidence.

Donziger said that rather than comply with court findings that its pollution is causing death and destruction to Indigenous peoples in Ecuador, Chevron attacks the lawyers and their impoverished clients who held the company accountable. Chevron had insisted the trial take place in Ecuador and then refused to pay the judgment when it lost.

“Chevron’s latest attacks on my wife, young son, and other family members represent a new low in what for years has been an illegal demonization campaign designed to silence Indigenous peoples and lawyers like myself who held a notorious corporate polluter accountable for its environmental crimes and environmental racism in the Amazon,” said Donziger, who has attracted wide support from environmental groups and in the legal community, including from Harvard Law Professor Charles Nesson and First Amendment Scholar Marty Garbus.

“To be clear, I can respect a company that defends its rights within the confines of the law,” he added. “But what Chevron is doing is not normal litigation. Chevron is a billion-dollar oil company using vast sums of illegal profits taken from a pump-and-dump operation in Ecuador to bribe a witness to testify falsely against me and others to try to undermine a valid pollution judgment. In short, Chevron is manipulating the civil justice system to wage war against its adversaries and it is doing so with the help of a conflicted trial judge.” 

Other advocates and lawyers also spoke out against Chevron’s ongoing attacks on Donziger and his family members.

“What Chevron is doing to Steven Donziger and his family is an outrageous assault on the rule of law and on the very concept of human rights advocacy,” said Paul Paz y Miño, campaign coordinator with Amazon Watch, a group that works with the affected Ecuadorian communities. “The world needs to stand up and defend this brave advocate because his well-being implicates the well-being of all of us who try to protect human rights from corporate abuse.”

“What Chevron and Judge Kaplan are doing by targeting a well-respected human rights advocate, as well as his wife and son, is clearly unconscionable and needs to be condemned by all responsible authorities in the United States,” said Simon Taylor, the founder of Global Witness, a leading anti-corruption organization based in London.

Patricio Salazar, the lead Ecuadorian lawyer for the affected communities, criticized Chevron for using “heinous” tactics against Donziger’s family. “Chevron and its lawyers need to be held accountable for using personal attacks on its critics to try to deprive the people of Ecuador the counsel of their choice, Steven Donziger,” said Salazar. “Thousands of people in Ecuador and around the world stand by Steven and his family’s courage in standing up to these cowardly, unethical, and illegal attacks. ”

A Harvard Law graduate and classmate of President Obama, Donziger said the latest move by the oil giant is also an “intimidation play” to retaliate for the fact his clients are enforcing their judgment in Canada. The Ecuador judgment has been affirmed by three appellate courts in Ecuador – including 16 separate appellate judges -- while the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously backed the right of the villagers to pursue enforcement after Chevron refused to pay the liability.

The Chevron attack campaign is being led by attorneys Randy Mastro and Andrea Neuman of the U.S. law firm Gibson Dunn; both, along with Chevron General Counsel R. Hewitt Pate, have been referred to the U.S. Department of Justice by the human rights group Global Witness (see here) and by Donziger for engaging in witness bribery and fraud in Kaplan’s courtroom. Gibson Dunn launched its demonization campaign against Donziger in 2009 after he spoke out against Chevron’s pollution in a 60 Minutes segment that embarrassed the company. Donziger has been called a “hero” of the environmental movement by Rex Weyler, co-founder of Greenpeace.

Court decisions in favor of the villagers and Donziger have put huge pressure on Chevron CEO Mike Wirth, who faces a shareholder revolt over risks related to his “mishandling” of risk related to the litigation.  Two shareholder resolutions questioning the case recently received heavy support at the company’s annual meeting in late May. (See here.)

Thirty-six institutional Chevron shareholders recently urged Wirth to explore settling the case (here), which has cost the company an estimated $2 billion in fees to pay at least 60 law firms and 2,000 legal personnel. Environmental groups, including Amazon Watch, also accused Wirth of lying to shareholders by claiming there is no evidence of the company’s pollution despite the submission of 64,000 chemical sampling results in the Ecuador trial. (See here.)

Background – Judge Kaplan and the “Amazon Chernobyl”

 Despite the affirmance of the Ecuador judgment by multiple courts in Ecuador and Canada, one trial judge in the U.S. -- Lewis A. Kaplan -- ruled several years ago in a non-jury civil trial brought by Chevron that the judgment was obtained by “fraud”. Kaplan based his decision largely on testimony from an admittedly corrupt Ecuadorian witness, paid $2 million by Chevron for his testimony.  The witness, Alberto Guerra, later admitted he lied repeatedly in Kaplan’s court.

Kaplan has been widely criticized for having undisclosed investments in Chevron and more recently for taking brazen steps to harm Donziger, including threatening him with billions of dollars of fines if he does not turn over his computer, cell phone, and passwords to the company on the theory that he is not allowed to raise funds to assist his clients in their advocacy.  The largest fine for civil contempt ever in New York is $50,000 and that was imposed on a billion-dollar bank.

Noted U.S. trial lawyer John Keker – considered one of the leading litigators in the United States -- called Kaplan’s management of the Chevron case a “Dickensian farce” infected by the judge’s  “implacable hostility” toward Donziger. Donziger has repeatedly asserted that the Chevron case before Kaplan was the product of the company’s fraud.

Kaplan has denied multiple motions to recuse himself based on evidence of bias. He once described the case as a “giant game” that was “akin to mud wrestling”; he also repeatedly described the Ecuadorian communities as the “so-called” plaintiffs.

While Chevron has been targeting Donziger for years – once using 25 lawyers to attend his deposition in 2011 and separately dispatching six private investigators to trail him around Manhattan – the company’s campaign has failed to extinguish the judgment, which grows by an estimated $300 million per year due to interest. Chevron targeted Donziger’s wife after she helped organize a highly successful tour in 2017 of Chevron’s contaminated well sites for prominent Canadian Indigenous and environmental leaders. The tour resulted in unflattering media coverage of Chevron after comments were published critical of the company by former Canada National Chief Phil Fontaine and Greenpeace co-founder Rex Weyler. Weyler accused Chevron of committing “ecological crimes” in Ecuador.

While Chevron has tried for years to obstruct the enforcement of the Ecuador judgment, the company last month suffered a setback of sorts after the Canada Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of a technical legal issue. That decision paves the way for a trial where evidence of Chevron’s witness bribery and fraud will be presented, said Salazar.

Gibson Dunn, the U.S. law firm hired by Chevron to attack Donziger and his family, recently was found by the High Court of London to have fabricated evidence to frame a political opponent of the President of Djibouti. The firm has a history of questionable ethical conduct and was accused by the Montana Supreme Court of engaging in “legal thuggery”. Gibson Dunn markets itself as a “rescue squad” for scandal-plagued corporations and its lawyers claim to have mastered the “dark arts” of litigation, said Salazar.

The same Chevron lawyers at Gibson Dunn who are attacking Donziger recently were found to have ghostwritten an affidavit for a Boston financial advisor who supported the Ecuadorians that contained numerous false statements, as documented here.

Chevron’s attacks on Donziger also have attracted “serious concern” from the prominent London-based human rights group Global Witness (see here). That organization has urged the U.S. Department of Justice to open a criminal investigation of Chevron’s lawyers and is monitoring bar proceedings that Judge Kaplan and some of his colleagues initiated against Donziger.   

“We are dedicated to monitoring attacks on Steven Donziger and all human rights and environmental defenders who get targeted by corporations that they are trying to hold accountable,” said Taylor, a founder of Global Witness.

While Chevron has been desperate to hold Donziger in contempt of court as a retaliatory measure, Donziger himself recently asked Kaplan to hold him in voluntary contempt so he could immediately appeal what he says is Chevron’s “weaponization” of the subpoena process to intimidate supporters of the case. Kaplan obliged last week, but still threatened Donziger with huge fines if he did not turn over his computer and cell phone to Chevron.