Person

Steven Donziger

Born:

1961

Nationality:

American

Occupation:

Former Environmental Attorney

Steven Donziger is a disbarred American attorney. He initially had appeared to win the largest environmental legal judgment in history against Chevron Corporation, relating to alleged pollution from oil wells in the Amazonian rain forest in Ecuador, but the judgment was later declared unenforceable and Donziger was disbarred after a U.S. court found that Donziger and his associates had engaged in “egregious fraud,” including bribing Ecuadorian judges, engaging in witness tampering, and ghostwriting the reports of court-appointed scientific witnesses. [1]

Background

Donziger was raised by a single mother in Jacksonville, Florida. He told the New York Times that his mother took him to picket lines as a child to back the lettuce boycott organized by activist Cesar Chavez. Donziger’s grandfather was a Brooklyn district attorney and judge who decorated his office with pictures of himself with Hubert H. Humphrey and Robert F. Kennedy. After graduating from American University in Washington, D.C., Donziger worked as a freelance journalist in Nicaragua before attending Harvard Law School, where he played basketball with future President Barack Obama. [2] He graduated in 1991 and founded Project Due Process, offering legal services to Cuban refugees. [3]

The Lago Agria Lawsuit

In 1993, a group of 30,000 Ecuadorian plaintiffs, including members of native tribes, filed suit in a New York federal court. They alleged that between 1964 and 1992, Texaco (the predecessor of Chevron) dumped billions of gallons of toxic water and oil sludge into pits near rainforest oil production sites that seeped into groundwater and contaminated 1,700 square miles in Ecuador. [4] In court filings, plaintiffs referred to this region of Ecuador, known as Lago Agria, as the “Amazon Chernobyl.” [5]  In 1993, the Ecuadorian political group Frente de Defensa de la Amazonia asked Donziger to join the case. [6] Donziger signed on and soon became the lead attorney, which was moved to Ecuador. [7]

Donziger was notable for his aggressive public relations efforts, and he and the Lago Agria plaintiffs were featured in dozens of highly sympathetic profiles in outlets such as 60 Minutes, Vanity Fair, the New York Times, and others. The author of a Vanity Fair profile of Donziger, William Langewiesche, “was so thoroughly seduced by Mr. Donziger’s human-rights shtick that he literally had the plaintiffs’ attorney script the questions he was submitting to Chevron—and even went so far as to submit copy to Donziger for his approval. E-mails between the two released as part of the legal discovery process find the attorney apologizing to the allegedly independent journalist for being ‘a little aggressive in the editing.’”[8]

Texaco signed a 1998 agreement with the Ecuadorian government for $40 million, which Chevron claimed absolved it of any further responsibility. It also claimed that Ecuador’s state-run oil company is responsible for much of the pollution in the oil patch. The plaintiffs continued their case, however, and after years of legal wrangling in Ecuadorian courts, an Ecuadorian judge issued an $18 billion judgment against Chevron in February 2011, the largest environmental judgment in legal history. That judgment was later affirmed by Ecuador’s highest court but reduced to approximately $9.5 billion. Donziger and other plaintiffs’ lawyers were slated to receive one-third of this award. [9]

Because Chevron had no assets in Ecuador, Donziger moved to enforce the judgment in U.S. courts. Chevron fought back, arguing that the judgment was the product of fraud and bribery. It filed a civil suit against Donziger under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (“RICO”) Act, alleging that the Ecuadorian judgment was the product of a corrupt agreement between Donziger and Alberto Guerra, a former Ecuadorean judge who testified that Donziger paid him $1,000 a month to ghostwrite favorable opinions for the presiding judge, Nicolas Zambrano. Guerra also admitted that Zambrano told him that Donziger and other plaintiffs’ attorneys promised to pay Judge Zambrano $500,000 for a favorable verdict. [10]

A major break in the case appeared when the federal district court permitted Chevron to obtain outtakes of a 2009 documentary film titled “Crude,” which gave a highly sympathetic portrait of Donziger and many of the Ecuadorian plaintiffs. One outtake showed a scientific expert retained by the plaintiffs telling Donziger that there was no evidence that contamination spread from the pits and that “nothing has spread anywhere at all.” The outtakes showed Donzinger responding, “This is Ecuador, ok? 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.” [11]

In the wake of these revelations, Donziger was also ordered to surrender a diary that revealed secret meetings with Ecuadorean judges and emails that referred to an Ecuadoran lawyer for the plaintiffs “paying the puppeteer,” which Chevron alleged was a references to bribing a judge. [12]

On March 4, 2014, a federal judge in New York, Lewis Kaplan, issued a 500-page opinion in the RICO case finding against Donziger. The court found that the Ecuador judgment was the product of “egregious fraud” and described how Donziger and associates ghostwrote a key court-appointed expert’s report. Though the court acknowledged evidence that Guerra had received payments from Chevron, which had also moved him and his family to the United States, Kaplan found that Guerra’s testimony was corroborated by other evidence and that he “would have reached precisely the same result in this case even without the testimony of Alberto Guerra.” [13] Donziger was found to have engaged in various corrupt actions including obstruction of justice, witness tampering, judicial coercion, and bribery. [14] Kaplan stated:

An innocent defendant is no more entitled to submit false evidence, to coopt and pay off a court-appointed expert, or to coerce or bribe a judge or jury than a guilty one. So even if Donziger and his clients had a just cause—and the Court expresses no opinion on that—they were not entitled to corrupt the process to achieve their goal. [15]

Donziger was ordered to surrender his interest in the Gibraltar-based holding company that he had set up to receive the proceeds from the lawsuit, and was prohibited from receiving monies from any foreign court judgment upholding the $9.5 billion Ecuadorian judgment. [16] A federal appeals court upheld the decision in 2017, saying that the Ecuadorian judgment was “clearly traceable” to corrupt conduct by Donziger and his associates. The U.S. Supreme Court later declined to hear the matter. [17]

Chevron also sued a prominent D.C.-based law firm, Patton Boggs, which had assisted Donziger in his attempt to enforce the judgment in the U.S., winning a $15 million settlement. [18] Chevron also won a settlement from Woodsford Litigation Funders, a British firm that had provided $2.5 million in financing to Donziger and his firm to fund the litigation. [19]

Criminal Charges and Disbarment Proceedings

Kaplan also ordered Donziger to turn over to Chevron and to a court-appointed forensic expert any phones, computers, or other electronic devices that he had used while litigating the Chevron matter, and to make his files available to Chevron. Kaplan refused, citing client confidentiality. In response, Kaplan drafted criminal contempt charges against Donziger. When federal prosecutors declined to prosecute Donziger, Kaplan then took the highly unusual step of appointing a private law firm to prosecute Donziger and assigned the criminal contempt case to a fellow federal judge in New York. Kaplan also placed Donziger under house arrest and prohibited him from employment. [20] After a delay, Donziger is scheduled to go to trial in the criminal case in January 2021. [21] In July 2020, a group of retired federal judges criticized Kaplan, calling the criminal charges “excessive.” [22]

In 2018, based on a referral from Kaplan, the New York state bar suspended Donziger’s license to practice law. After a special referee appointed by the bar recommended that the suspension be lifted, the state bar permanently disbarred Donziger in August 2020. Referring to the findings in the RICO trial, the bar stated that Donziger “has been found guilty of egregious professional misconduct … which he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge and shows no remorse for.” Donziger has appealed his disbarment. [23]

References

  1. Fisher, Daniel. “Judge Calls Chevron Verdict Product Of ‘Egregious Fraud,’ Unenforceable.” Forbes. March 4, 2014. Accessed October 20, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/danielfisher/2014/03/04/judge-finds-chevron-verdict-product-of-fraud-and-unenforceable/#364e513226a2. ^
  2. Krauss, Clifford. “Lawyer Who Beat Chevron in Ecuador Faces Trial of His Own.” New York Times. July 30, 2013. Accessed October 19, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/31/business/steven-donziger-lawyer-who-beat-chevron-in-ecuador-faces-trial-of-his-own.html ^
  3. Weyler, Rex. “This lawyer took on Chevron and won the largest human rights and environmental court judgment in history. Then he lost his freedom.” National Observer. July 31, 2020. Accessed October 20, 2020. https://www.nationalobserver.com/2020/07/31/opinion/lawyer-took-chevron-and-won-largest-human-rights-and-environmental-court-judgment ^
  4. James North. “How a Human Rights Lawyer Went From Hero to House Arrest.” The Nation. March 31, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2020. https://www.thenation.com/article/activism/steven-donziger-chevron/. ^
  5. Weyler, Rex. “This lawyer took on Chevron and won the largest human rights and environmental court judgment in history. Then he lost his freedom.” National Observer. July 31, 2020. Accessed October 20, 2020. https://www.nationalobserver.com/2020/07/31/opinion/lawyer-took-chevron-and-won-largest-human-rights-and-environmental-court-judgment. ^
  6. Weyler, Rex. “This lawyer took on Chevron and won the largest human rights and environmental court judgment in history. Then he lost his freedom.” National Observer. July 31, 2020. Accessed October 20, 2020. https://www.nationalobserver.com/2020/07/31/opinion/lawyer-took-chevron-and-won-largest-human-rights-and-environmental-court-judgment. ^
  7. James North. “How a Human Rights Lawyer Went From Hero to House Arrest.” The Nation. March 31, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2020. https://www.thenation.com/article/activism/steven-donziger-chevron/. ^
  8. Williamson, Kevin. “A Green Scam.” National Review. Sept. 25, 2014. Accessed October 20, 2020. https://www.nationalreview.com/energy-week/green-scam-kevin-d-williamson/. ^
  9. Neumeister, Larry. “NY judge rules for Chevron in Ecuador case.” New York Daily News. March 14, 2014. Accessed October 20, 2020. https://www.nydailynews.com/sdut-ny-judge-rules-for-chevron-in-ecuador-case-2014mar04-story.html. ^
  10. Krauss, Clifford. “Big Victory for Chevron Over Claims in Ecuador.” New York Times. March 4, 2014. Accessed October 20, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/05/business/federal-judge-rules-for-chevron-in-ecuadorean-pollution-case.html. ^
  11. Krauss, Clifford. “Lawyer Who Beat Chevron in Ecuador Faces Trial of His Own.” New York Times. July 30, 2013. Accessed October 19, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/31/business/steven-donziger-lawyer-who-beat-chevron-in-ecuador-faces-trial-of-his-own.html. ^
  12. Krauss, Clifford. “Lawyer Who Beat Chevron in Ecuador Faces Trial of His Own.” New York Times. July 30, 2013. Accessed October 19, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/31/business/steven-donziger-lawyer-who-beat-chevron-in-ecuador-faces-trial-of-his-own.html. ^
  13. Lerner, Sharon. “How the Environmental Lawyer Who Won a Massive Judgment Against Chevron Lost Everything.” The Intercept. Jan. 29, 2020. Accessed October 20, 2020. https://theintercept.com/2020/01/29/chevron-ecuador-lawsuit-steven-donziger/. ^
  14. Lerner, Sharon. “How the Environmental Lawyer Who Won a Massive Judgment Against Chevron Lost Everything.” The Intercept. Jan. 29, 2020. Accessed October 20, 2020. https://theintercept.com/2020/01/29/chevron-ecuador-lawsuit-steven-donziger/. ^
  15. Fisher, Daniel. “Judge Calls Chevron Verdict Product Of ‘Egregious Fraud,’ Unenforceable.” Forbes. March 4, 2014. Accessed October 20, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/danielfisher/2014/03/04/judge-finds-chevron-verdict-product-of-fraud-and-unenforceable/#364e513226a2. ^
  16. Fisher, Daniel. “Judge Calls Chevron Verdict Product Of ‘Egregious Fraud,’ Unenforceable.” Forbes. March 4, 2014. Accessed October 20, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/danielfisher/2014/03/04/judge-finds-chevron-verdict-product-of-fraud-and-unenforceable/#364e513226a2. ^
  17. Hurley, Lawrence. “U.S. top court hands Chevron victory in Ecuador pollution case.” Reuters. June 19, 2017. Accessed October 20, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/usa-court-chevron-idUSL1N1JG0HV. ^
  18. Mufson, Steven. “Chevron, Patton Boggs settle their epic legal battle over jungle oil pits in Ecuador.” Washington Post. May 7, 2014. Accessed October 20, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/chevron-and-patton-boggs-settle-their-epic-legal-battle-over-jungle-oil-pits-in-ecuador/2014/05/07/8fa73ad4-d5ef-11e3-aae8-c2d44bd79778_story.html. ^
  19. Barrett, Paul. “Litigation Finance Takes Another Hit in Chevron Pollution Case.” Bloomberg Finance. May 5, 2015. Accessed October 20, 2020. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-05-05/litigation-finance-takes-another-hit-in-chevron-pollution-case. ^
  20. Lerner, Sharon. “How the Environmental Lawyer Who Won a Massive Judgment Against Chevron Lost Everything.” The Intercept. Jan. 29, 2020. Accessed October 20, 2020. https://theintercept.com/2020/01/29/chevron-ecuador-lawsuit-steven-donziger/. ^
  21. “Donziger’s Criminal Contempt Trial Delayed To January.” Law360.com. November 6, 2020. Accessed November 17, 2020. https://www.law360.com/whitecollar/articles/1326689. ^
  22. “Criminal Contempt Charges In Donziger Case Are Excessive.” Law360. July 13, 2020. Accessed October 20, 2020. https://www.law360.com/articles/1290825/criminal-contempt-charges-in-donziger-case-are-excessive. ^
  23. Grant, Jason. “Steven Donziger, Lawyer Known for Multibillion-Dollar Environmental Battle With Chevron, Is Disbarred.” New York Law Journal. August 13, 2020. Accessed October 20, 2020. https://www.law.com/newyorklawjournal/2020/08/13/steven-donziger-lawyer-known-for-multibillion-dollar-environmental-battle-with-chevron-is-disbarred/. ^
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