Opinion: The law of the jungle, the Chevron battle in Ecuador retold

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When some years back Vanity Fair published a story called Jungle Law,  Steve Donziger believed the story would constitute a paradigmatic change that would end in a positive verdict in his judicial case against Chevron. Donziger, the lawyer representing a group of people from the Ecuador’s Amazonia that for over 20 years have been seeking reparations for the contamination allegedly left behind by Texaco (now merged with Chevron), probably did not imagine that all the fraudulent schemes he planned and executed would end up coming to light.

The lawyer that was able to obtain millions of dollars to defend the indigenous people had no qualms in pressuring the government to block any type of remediation.

— Ezequiel Vazquez-Ger

It turns out that the real “paradigmatic change” was not the Vanity Fair story, but a decision of judge Lewis Kaplan of the federal court of the Southern District of New York, which allowed Chevron to initiate a judicial process against Donziger and his team in the United States, for having conspired to break the law and procure a fraudulent judgment in Ecuador.

The trial revealed all types of fraudulent, corrupt, and extorting maneuvers executed by Donziger. Phrases such as “we would have never achieved this from the Judge if we had not pressured him,” “the law and facts are secondary; at the end of the day what really matters if brute force,” or “the Ecuadorian judges make their decisions based on who they fear the most, not on what the law says”, were the type of ideas that guided Donziger’s actions, which to his dismay, were registered in the thousands of video-recording hours in the documentary Crude, which Chevron gained access to through a court order.

new book by Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s senior editor, Paul Barrett, summarizes this story and makes reference to some scarcely known events. For example, the book tells how in 2006, Donziger and Pablo Fajardo (another lead lawyer in the plaintiffs’ team) exchanged emails discussing the success of their efforts to prevent Petroecuador from cleaning certain oil wells.

Specifically, Fajardo recognizes having pressured the company’s President for him to suspend all type of remediation activities in the area where Petroecuador operated together with Texaco, as this could “eliminate evidence.” In other words, the lawyer that was able to obtain millions of dollars to defend the indigenous people had no qualms in pressuring the government to block any type of remediation.

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Another point of interest in this story is Donziger’s inoperable business model to pursue the trial. Throughout 20 years of legal actions before different courts, Donziger sold rights over the trial and entered into shade agreements with different investors and law firms, without regard for how much money would be left for the remediation after covering debts with all investors.

A forensic analysis by Chevron and mentioned by Barrett, establishes that if for example the parties reached an agreement for $100 million, only 1.5 percent would be left to repair the Lago Agrio people. The remaining 98.5 percent would be divided among investors, legal fees (including Donziger’s fees) and administrative expenses.

The last contracts registered with the U.S. Department of Justice by one of these agencies, demonstrate how the Rafael Correa administration spent over half a million dollars in payments to Hollywood celebrities, such as Danny Glover or Mia Farrow to visit Ecuador and dip their hands in the allegedly contaminated wells, as part of the campaign “Chevron’s Dirty Hand.”

Therefore, it is expected the efforts of the Ecuadorian Government will be increased given the new revelations of Barrett’s book. In fact, in a note published in BusinessWeek last week, the author points out how the PR firm Ketchum, that also works for the Ecuadorian Government, would have set out a strategy to counterattack the books claims, through the use of the “discredit the messenger” tactic.

In his personal notes, which are also part of the legal process before the New York court, Donziger wrote: “I feel like I have gone over to the dark side.” Barrett’s book narrates this turning to the dark side, in a story that contains all possible ingredients: hypocrisy, corruption, extortion; a multinational with unlimited resources to continue its battle; an indigenous community that, after twenty years, continues claiming for what it believes is just, and behind all this, a lawyer drowning in his own vanity who lost the opportunity of doing good.