Crime & Justice

Lawyer on trial a decade after winning huge Ecuador verdict against Chevron

New York, May 10 (EFE).- An attorney who won a $9.5 billion environmental pollution case against Chevron Corp. in Ecuador a decade ago is on trial for contempt of court starting Monday after two years of house arrest in New York City.

Steven Donziger, who has the backing of celebrity activists and dozens of Nobel Prize laureates, says his prosecution and detention in the United States has been orchestrated by the oil company through a law firm, Seward & Kissel, that has represented Chevron in the recent past.

Actress Susan Sarandon; the co-founder of famed progressive rock band Pink Floyd, Roger Waters; and author Marianne Williamson demonstrated in support of Donziger on Monday morning outside the Manhattan-based United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.

They are supporting the efforts of the Nobel Prize laureates, who have called on US judicial authorities to dismiss the charges against Donziger in this case and ensure that any future legal action against him is assigned to a “neutral and unbiased judge.”

Donziger spent 643 days in home confinement ahead of his current trial on six charges of contempt of court for refusing to turn over information from his electronic devices and hand over his passport.

The trial, which began on Monday with the start of oral arguments, has been postponed on several occasions due to the Covid-19 pandemic and is being presided over by Judge Loretta Preska.

Her handling of the case is one of the main complaints of the Nobel laureates, who noted in their letter that she is a “member of The Federalist Society, of which Chevron is a major donor.”

The contempt-of-court case is the latest episode in a long saga that includes a 2011 verdict by a court in Lago Agrio, Ecuador, which rendered a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron for massive environmental damage that Texaco (a company it acquired in 2001) allegedly caused in Ecuador’s Amazon region between 1964 and 1990.

Chevron says it is not liable for any pollution in the rainforest because Ecuadorian authorities in 1995 certified that Texaco had carried out remediation work and released it from further environmental liability. It blames Ecuador’s state oil company for any current pollution.

The plaintiffs, however, argued that the agreement with the government of the time did not release Texaco from third-party claims

Chevron, which had no assets in Ecuador, refused to accept the ruling and has fought efforts by the plaintiffs to collect on the verdict in countries including Canada and Argentina.

It also brought and won a civil racketeering case in the US against Donziger, who had represented Ecuadorian indigenous communities in the Lago Agrio case.

In that 2014 decision, a New York federal judge, Lewis Kaplan, ruled that Donziger had engaged in fraud, bribery and coercion to secure the verdict in the Lago Agrio case. Kaplan had ordered Donziger to turn over his electronic devices, but the attorney did not comply.

In 2018, a New York appeals court stripped Donziger of his New York law license in a decision stemming from Kaplan’s ruling.

Donziger’s refusal to comply with Kaplan’s orders led the judge to order a criminal contempt trial.

After the Manhattan US attorney’s office declined to take up the case, he appointed an attorney at Seward & Kissel, Rita Glavin, to prosecute the case, an action that prompted Donziger’s legal team to level allegations of a conflict of interest. EFE

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