By Kate Ackley, Roll Call
28 November 2005
A group of plaintiffs who are suing Chevron Corp. in an Ecuadorean court have taken their cause to Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.).
In a letter delivered last week to Thomas - as well as his colleagues on Ways and Means, House leaders and several other Members - the group of plaintiffs complained that Chevron "is inappropriately lobbying members of Congress to prevent Ecuador's participation in the Andean Free Trade Agreement."
The letter, which was signed by representatives of indigenous groups and Luis Yanza, the coordinator for the legal case against Chevron, said Ecuadorean officials have told the plaintiffs that Chevron has lobbied Thomas and other Members to keep Ecuador from signing the trade agreement until Chevron's legal woes are resolved.
"Chevron is trying to use Congress to pressure the Ecuadorean government into terminating the case or agreeing to take all financial responsibility for cleanup, in exchange for the right to sign the free trade agreement," said Steven Donziger, a New York-based lawyer who is one of the U.S. and Ecuadorean lawyers who filed the case. "This is corporate bullying at its worst, and the Congress should reject such attempts to hijack U.S. trade policy to serve the narrow economic interests of a single corporation."
Jeff Moore, a Chevron spokesman, said his company "would expect the U.S. government would want to be informed regarding this issue, which involves a U.S. company being sued in Ecuador, and we have provided factual information to the U.S. government as part of our due diligence as this matter evolves."
The court case is not between the Ecuadorean government and Chevron - it's between the U.S. oil company and roughly 30,000 residents of the Amazon rainforest. Those residents allege that a subsidiary of Texaco, later acquired by Chevron, dumped oil waste that has polluted the local environment.
In the letter, plaintiffs said they worry that U.S. or Ecuadorean government intervention on behalf of Chevron would undermine the rule of law. If held liable, Chevron could be on the hook for a "multibillion-dollar judgment," the letter said.
A Ways and Means spokeswoman said the committee generally does not comment on who is lobbying it.
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has held several rounds of talks with Ecuador, Columbia and Peru to come to agreement on an Andean free trade pact. On Nov. 22, USTR ended the most recent round of negotiations with Ecuador. A spokeswoman for the agency said negotiators plan to meet with officials from that country again next year.
She also said that free trade agreements often serve as leverage when it comes to disputes. "Our bilateral trade negotiations are one of our most effective tools for resolving our bilateral trade issues," said Neena Moorjani, USTR's press secretary.
Chevron's Moore added, "With respect to the ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and Ecuador, we have indicated to the U.S. government our present opposition to the inclusion of Ecuador in the Andean Free Trade Agreement until the government of Ecuador honors its existing contractual obligations and respects and upholds the rule of law with respect to our interests."
The plaintiffs' letter, which is four pages long including footnotes, calls Chevron's efforts "back-door dealing." But it is common for international conflicts involving U.S. businesses to spark lobbying efforts. And the plaintiffs in the Chevron case are themselves making their case to U.S. government officials.
But in this case, Donziger said, the lobbying push is "part of Chevron's attempt to not only try to win the case, but to try to kill the idea that indigenous people can even bring such a case."
Texaco already has paid $40 million for cleanup efforts, and in the late 1990s, the government of Ecuador released the company from further claims. But that release is at issue in the current court case.
The plaintiffs' letter to Thomas said the Ecuadorean government is examining whether that release "was obtained fraudulently." And, the plaintiffs wrote, they worry that pressure from Ways and Means "might also induce the Ecuadorean government to abandon" that inquiry.
If the Ecuadorean government declared that the release was legitimate, it would likely strengthen Chevron's court case.
Moore, the Chevron spokesman, said evidence from the trial has shown that the company has met its obligations related to environmental cleanup. However, PetroEcuador, which had a partnership with Texaco, has not met its share of the obligation, Moore said.
A press official from Ecuador's U.S. embassy said the issue is an important one and that indigenous groups and the government of Ecuador are still engaged in conversations about the matter.
The plaintiffs' letter also calls GOP insider Wayne Berman "Chevron's senior lobbyist in Washington, D.C." But while Berman's firm, the Federalist Group, is registered to lobby on behalf of the company, he is not the company's lead lobbyist here. Chevron maintains a long roster of outside lobbying help as well as an in-house lobbying team headed by Lisa Barry, vice president and general manager of government affairs.
Another Chevron lobbyist from the Federalist Group, Drew Maloney, said, "We have never been asked to lobby on this issue."
According to its most recent lobbying report, Chevron spent $3.2 million on federal lobbying for the first six months of 2005. One of Chevron's most public issues involved its acquisition of California oil company Unocal. Both Chevron and the Chinese-owned oil concern CNOOC made bids for Unocal, and the issue became politically charged over concerns that the Chinese government could hold sway over an American company.
The 15-page lobbying disclosure report filed with the Senate Office of Public Records lists among the company's dozens of issues "Ecuador - Pending litigation regarding past Texaco operations and environmental clean-up in Ecuador." The lobbying report also lists the Andean free trade agreement as an area in which the company has lobbied during the first half of this year.