Lawyer Who Beat Chevron in Ecuador Faces Trial of His Own

By Clifford Krauss, The New York Times
30 July 2013

Steven R. Donziger – environmental hero or charlatan, depending on whom you talk to – is one of the toughest lawyers around, or slightly crazy.

Possibly both.

For the last two decades Mr. Donziger has been battling the Chevron Corporation over an environmental disaster that happened in the jungles of Ecuador. Two years ago, he won an $18 billion case against the oil giant, the kind of victory that most lawyers can only dream of.

But Chevron has yet to pay a penny of the award, and has turned the tables on him. Now, he is defending himself against a Chevron lawsuit charging that he masterminded a conspiracy to extort and defraud the corporation. The trial is scheduled for October.

Across a table in his two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Mr. Donziger for the first time in recent years spoke publicly about the personal travails that he says have engulfed him. He says shadowy men have trailed him. Watched his family. Sat in cars outside his home. He had his apartment swept for bugs, but found nothing.

All of that might sound like the ravings of a Grade A conspiracy theorist. But Mr. Donziger, who played basketball with Barack Obama at Harvard Law School, has a serious following among environmentalists. He and his supporters say he is being vilified – potentially ruined – for unmasking Chevron's questionable environmental record. Chevron, which is suing him and his associates for damages that could reach billions of dollars, says he is simply a con artist.

It is a remarkable turn of events for Mr. Donziger, who has chased after Chevron with the single-mindedness of Ahab. Reports of questionable ethical conduct have cast doubt over his motives. He is accused of engineering the ghostwriting of a crucial report submitted to the Ecuadorean court that decided the case, a claim he says is exaggerated and misconstrues local legal customs. Some of his former allies have abandoned him and signed statements taking Chevron's side.

Even his lawyer in the fraud case has withdrawn himself because, he said, Mr. Donziger could no longer pay his bills. And this month U.S. District Court Judge Lewis A. Kaplan denied Mr. Donziger's plea for a delay in the trial, expressing skepticism that he and his backers did not have the money to hire another lawyer. (Judge Kaplan noted in his ruling that Mr. Donziger stood to gain a fee of over $1 billion should the Ecuadorean judgment, which Chevron is challenging, be enforced.)

The particulars of the case have been litigated and relitigated. Mr. Donziger insists that Chevron's predecessor, Texaco, cut through the Amazon, spilled oil into pristine rain forests and left behind what remains to this day a toxic mess. Chevron says he is an ambulance-chaser who has fabricated facts for his own financial ends, blaming the company for pollution mostly caused by Petroecuador, the national oil company that was once a partner of Texaco and continues to produce oil in the region.

But Mr. Donziger, a bear of a man with a quick laugh and a robust ego, says he is unbowed.

"It is creepy and scary," Mr. Donziger, 51, said of his experiences during a six-hour interview at his home. Chevron, a company worth $240 billion, is trying to scare him away, he says. "When I walk into a deposition and see 15 Chevron lawyers there ready to eat me for lunch, I realize I've been bestowed an honor," he said, smiling.

To which Chevron says: Nonsense. "He thinks he can one-up P. T. Barnum and fool all the people all the time," said Randy Mastro, a lawyer working for Chevron. "But it's his own confidants who have now turned on him."

Many environmentalists, perhaps predictably, are still behind him.

"I have admiration for anyone who is willing to take on a rich, powerful oil company," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club and a longtime supporter of Mr. Donziger's efforts. "And to do it for more than two decades is either crazy or impressive and probably both."

These days, Mr. Donziger spends much of his time working at his dining room table below an expansive portrait of Mao walking among his people – more of a joke than an expression of his political beliefs, he says. He still finds time to take his 6-year-old son to school, take yoga classes and walk the dog. His apartment is virtually a gallery of the case. Photographs of Ecuadorean Indians, jungle pipelines and the first day of the Ecuadorean trial hang on its walls.

The origins of the case go back to the 1970s, when Texaco, which was later acquired by Chevron, operated as a partner with the Ecuadorean state oil company Petroecuador in the Amazon.

Mr. Donziger, who had worked as a journalist in Nicaragua, was a Harvard Law School student when he heard about the cause from a fellow student of Ecuadorean descent. Even though Texaco had reached a $40 million agreement with Ecuador that obliged it to clean some of the waste pits and well sites, villagers filed a class-action suit in 1993. Mr. Donziger dived in and emerged as the lead legal organizer.

Mr. Donziger's activism is something of a birthright. He remembers how his mother, a social activist from Jacksonville, Fla., took him as a young boy to a picket line in front of a grocery store to back César Chávez's lettuce boycott. His grandfather, Aaron E. Koota, was a Brooklyn district attorney and judge who decorated his office with pictures of himself with Hubert H. Humphrey and Robert F. Kennedy.

Inspired by them, he said he went to law school committed to help people who otherwise could not get access to legal services.

Two years out of law school, he traveled to Ecuador in 1993. "I saw what honestly looked like an apocalyptic disaster, almost like the end of the world," he said, describing seeing entire jungle lakes filled with oil and children walking barefoot on oil-covered roads. That set the stage for a life dominated by the case.

Chevron never accepted the validity of the Ecuadorean judgment, and has looked for any opening to discredit it.

It found one in the documentary film "Crude," which essentially stars Mr. Donziger, and highlighted his unorthodox style. Chevron lawyers argued before Judge Kaplan that the release of outtakes could prove that the company had been wronged.

Judge Kaplan agreed, and the flood of damaging revelations began.

One outtake filmed in a restaurant showed Ann Maest, a scientist working for Stratus Consulting, telling Mr. Donziger that there was no evidence that contamination spread from the oil pits and that "nothing has spread anywhere at all." Mr. Donzinger, who had hired the company to research the contamination, was unmoved. "This is Ecuador, O.K.," he said. "At the end of the day, there are a thousand people around the courthouse, you will get whatever you want. Sorry, but it's true."

Mr. Donziger has also been compelled to surrender a diary that revealed his secret meetings with Ecuadorean judges. He has been forced to hand over e-mail correspondence that contains several messages from one of his Ecuadorean colleagues about "paying the puppeteer" that Chevron insists are references to bribes to a judge. (Mr. Donziger says that was a joke, referring to "a former very bossy lawyer" with whom his team has a longstanding fee dispute.)

Sworn statements by environmental consultants who formerly worked with him have contended that he ignored scientific evidence that challenged his allegations of widespread contamination and that he engineered the ghostwriting of the critical report to the Ecuadorean court.

"Donziger created this fiction of massive environmental contamination," said Kent Robertson, a Chevron spokesman, who acknowledged that the company had hired private investigators to protect itself from fraud.

Mr. Donziger countersued Chevron for fraud and extortion, accusing Chevron of corruption, bribes and threats to officials in Ecuador, but Judge Kaplan dismissed the case this week.

Mr. Donziger denies that he has crossed any ethical line, and says the sworn statements against him were obtained under legal pressure from Chevron, which he refuses to bow to.

"A giant oil company is trying to destroy me because I was able to hold them accountable for toxic dumping on a mass scale," he said.

By Mr. Donziger's account, however, Chevron is also feeling the heat. Even though today it has no meaningful operations in Ecuador, it faces enforcement actions to confiscate its assets in Canada, Brazil and Argentina. He added with typical bluster, "As I take the long view, it's Chevron that faces the risk, not Steven Donziger."

As he prepared to leave the lobby of his building the other day to take his cocker spaniel for a walk, he said of himself and his family, "It's stressful, but we'll be fine."

[ Back to top ]