I first heard the story of Steven Donziger on the fifth season Amy Westervelt's brilliant true crime climate change podcast Drilled! But Esquire also recently published an excellent story about him as well. As of that article's publication, he'd been under house arrest for 590 days after being slapped with an ankle bracelet for the civil misdemeanor of … not turning his laptop over to a corporation he'd defeated in court, because it would be a violation of attorney-client privilege.
Doniger had represented a group of Indigenous peoples and rural farmers in Ecuador in a lawsuit against Texaco, who was accused of dumping some 16 billion gallons of toxic waste in what would become known as the "Amazon Chernobyl." That lawsuit began in 1993, and after being bounced between US and Ecuadorian courts, as well as dealing with the acquisition of Texaco by its now-parent company of Chevron, the plaintiffs represented by Donziger won the case, forcing Chevron to pay a $9.8 billion dollar settlement.
So how did he go from kicking some corporate oil lobby ass, to spending 2 years on house arrest? Well, Chevron retaliated by suing Doniger for a non-criminal violation the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. And then, as Drilled News succinctly summarizes:
As part of a 2014 judgement against him, Donziger was barred from profiting from the collection of the damages in the Ecuadorian judgement. When Chevron suspected him of breaking that ban, the firm asked the court to investigate, and Donziger was asked to hand over his computer and cell phone to the court, along with any communications related to the case.
When Donziger refused, arguing that the request violated attorney-client privilege and potentially endangered the Ecuadorian plaintiffs, Judge Kaplan charged him with criminal contempt.
In August 2019, Judge Preska ruled that Donziger, a husband and father who has lived in New York for decades, was a flight risk, placed him under house arrest and ordered him to post an $800,000 bond and surrender his passport.
If you want to know just how deep the corruption goes, Esquire has you covered:
Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, a former corporate lawyer whose clients included tobacco companies, became Donziger's judge-and-jury in the RICO case. He heard from 31 witnesses, but based his ruling in significant part on the testimony of Albert Guerra, a former Ecuadorian judge whom Chevron relocated to the U.S. at an overall cost of $2 million. Guerra alleged there was a bribe involved in the Ecuadorian court's judgement against Chevron. He has since retracted some of his testimony, admitting it was false.
But Kaplan, who refused to look at the scientific evidence in the original case, ruled the initial verdict was the result of fraud. And he didn't stop there. He ordered Donziger to pay millions in attorneys fees to Chevron and eventually ordered him to turn over decades of client communications, even going after his phone and computer. Donziger considered this a threat to attorney-client privilege and appealed the ruling, but while that appeal was pending, Kaplan slapped him with a contempt of court charge for refusing to give up the devices. When the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York declined to prosecute the case, Kaplan took the extraordinary step of appointing a private law firm to prosecute Donziger in the name of the U.S. government. The firm, Seward & Kissel, has had a number of oil-and-gas clients, including, in 2018… Chevron. Kaplan bypassed the usual random case-assignment procedure of the federal judiciary and handpicked a judge to hear the contempt case: Loretta Preska, a member of the Federalist Society, among whose major donors is… Chevron. Preska has, like Kaplan, rejected Donziger's requests to have his trial heard by a jury of his peers. Both judges declined Esquire's request for comment on Donziger's cases, citing court policy.
And that's just part of the story. Check out Esquire or Drilled! for the rest, if your blood pressure has a high enough tolerance for such high levels of corrupt corporate fuckery.
'I've Been Targeted With Probably the Most Vicious Corporate Counterattack in American History' [Jack Holmes / Esquire]
Drilled, Season 5, Episode 1: Lockdown [Amy Westervelt]
Oil Industry Links In Donziger Contempt Trial [Karen Savage / Drilled News]
Image: Cancillería Ecuador / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)