By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK, March 4 An American lawyer used
"corrupt means" to secure a multi-billion-dollar pollution
judgment against Chevron Corp in Ecuador, a U.S. judge
ruled on Tuesday, a major setback for Ecuadorean villagers
hoping to collect on the award.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in New York said he found
"clear and convincing evidence" that attorney Steven Donziger's
legal team used bribery, fraud and extortion in pursuit of an
$18 billion judgment against the oil company issued in 2011.
The villagers had said Texaco, later acquired by Chevron,
contaminated an oil field in northeastern Ecuador between 1964
and 1992. Ecuador's high court cut the judgment to $9.5 billion
But regardless of whether there is pollution at the site,
Kaplan said, Donziger cannot use a "Robin Hood" defense to
justify illegal behavior.
Kaplan's decision bars Donziger and the villagers from
enforcing the Ecuadorean ruling in the United States. It may
also give Chevron legal ammunition in other countries where the
plaintiffs could try to go after Chevron's assets.
At a six-week trial last year, Chevron accused Donziger of
fraud and racketeering and said Texaco cleaned up the site,
known as Lago Agrio, before handing it over to a
Donziger, who has repeatedly leveled accusations of bias
against Kaplan and who predicted he would lose the case, called
Tuesday's decision "appalling" and blamed Kaplan's "implacable
hostility" toward him and his Ecuadorean clients.
"Through this decision, we now have the spectacle of a
Manhattan trial judge purporting to overrule Ecuador's Supreme
Court on questions of Ecuadorean law," he said in a written
statement. He vowed to appeal and said the ruling would not stop
his clients from seeking to enforce the judgment in other
Chevron no longer has significant assets in Ecuador, and the
villagers have tried to enforce the ruling in Canada, Argentina
Chevron Chief Executive John Watson said the ruling was "a
The company is expected to use Kaplan's decision to defend
itself against claims abroad. In a statement, the company said,
"Any court that respects the rule of law will find the Lago
Agrio judgment to be illegitimate and unenforceable."
Chevron and Ecuador also remain locked in an arbitration
dispute in international court over cleanup costs at the site.
In Washington, the Ecuadorean embassy said in a statement
that the decision "does not exonerate Chevron from its own legal
and moral responsibilities resulting from its decades of
The decision caps a years-long battle in U.S. courts between
Chevron and Donziger, pitting the company's vast resources
against a lawyer who argued he was the victim of an unscrupulous
But Kaplan found that the evidence against Donziger was
"voluminous," including things like coded emails, secret
payments and clandestine meetings with judges that "normally
come only out of Hollywood."
Kaplan said Donziger began pursuing the case with intentions
to improve environmental conditions in Ecuador and make a living
for himself, but ultimately corrupted the case by submitting
fraudulent evidence, bribing a judge, ghost-writing the judgment
and covering up his wrongdoing.
"The saga of the Lago Agrio case is sad," Kaplan wrote.
The judge said Texaco, and by extension Chevron, "might bear
some responsibility" for pollution at the site but that it was
irrelevant to the question of whether fraud had occurred.
"Justice is not served by inflicting injustice," Kaplan
wrote. "The ends do not justify the means. There is no 'Robin
Hood' defense to illegal and wrongful conduct."
During the non-jury trial, which ended in November, Kaplan
heard from 31 witnesses and considered written testimony from 37
others. Chevron also introduced reams of documents, including
Donziger's personal notebook, purporting to show that he was
involved in a wide-ranging fraud.
Among the witnesses was the former Ecuadorean judge who
issued the 2011 judgment, Nicolas Zambrano, who testified that
he had received no money and had written the opinion without
But Kaplan agreed with Chevron that the evidence showed
Zambrano did not write the ruling himself. Instead, Kaplan,
said, the plaintiffs' team wrote the judgment, and Zambrano
simply signed his name to it.
Another former Ecuadorean judge, Alberto Guerra, testified
that Donziger's team paid him to ghost-write Zambrano's opinion.
Donziger's lawyers pointed out that Chevron had compensated him
for testifying and paid for his family's living expenses.
Chevron's lawyer, Randy Mastro of Gibson Dunn, pointed to
sections of the ruling that appeared to be copied word-for-word
from internal documents held by Donziger's team in Ecuador as
proof, saying they were "like fingerprints."
The case is Chevron Corp v. Steven Donziger et al, U.S.
District Court for the Southern District of New York, No.