* Man in judge sting has evidence against Chevron-friend
* His wife also worked for soil-testing lab-plaintiffs
* Ruling on potential $27 bln case expected this year
By Braden Reddall
SAN FRANCISCO, April 6 (Reuters) - Plaintiffs in a multibillion-dollar pollution lawsuit against Chevron Corp (CVX.N) said they had tape-recorded evidence that challenged the credibility of a key part of the company’s defense.
A report by the plaintiffs said an Ecuadorean man who had worked for Chevron and secretly videotaped a judge in the lawsuit discussing bribes told an acquaintance he had enough evidence to jeopardize the U.S. oil company’s case.
The report, made public Tuesday, adds another twist to a 17-year-old case brought on behalf of indigenous peoples for polluting the Ecuadorean jungle near where they live. Damages could be as much as $27 billion, and a ruling on the case from the court in Ecuador is due this year. The original defendant in the case, Texaco, merged with Chevron in 2001.
Diego Borja, one of the two men who secretly videotaped an Ecuadorean judge in the case during a discussion of bribes, now receives a monthly sum from Chevron and lives near its headquarters in San Ramon, California, according to Santiago Escobar, who says he has known Borja for 15 years.
The size of the monthly sum was not immediately clear, although Escobar said it was equal to what $10,000 a month would buy in Ecuador.
The plaintiffs’ report, issued by email and discussed on a conference call, said Borja told Escobar he had incriminating evidence against Chevron that he could use as leverage if the company “betrayed” him over the videotapes.
Borja and his wife also served as representatives of a company involved in independent tests of soil samples related to the pollution case, the plaintiffs said, citing court documents.
The plaintiffs issued a report last October that revealed the criminal past of Wayne Hansen, the other man involved in exposing the bribery scandal. [ID:nN29377257]
Escobar, a former Quito travel agent who shared friends with Borja and now lives near Toronto, said he turned against his friend because because he was angry about the Ecuadorean judge’s removal from the case last September. [ID:nN04185100]
“I knew — and all of us who knew him (Borja) — that he was in charge of operations for Chevron ... not exactly transparent operations, if not dark operations,” Escobar said in comments translated on a conference call.
Those operations included setting up four companies to make Borja appear independent of the company, the plaintiffs said.
Escobar said he and Borja talked about his relationship with Chevron and the case in a series of discussions that he recorded between August and October of last year, and Escobar then approached a representative of the plaintiffs in November.
The videotaped meetings with the judge occurred in May and June, and Chevron released the findings at the end of August.
In response to the new report, Chevron said nothing in it explained the judge’s improper participation in the videotaped meetings or showed Chevron had any involvement in planning or recording them.
“The plaintiffs’ lawyers have tried unsuccessfully for years to prove contamination and harm without any legitimate tests or medical records to support their claims,” Chevron said in an emailed statement.
“Today’s announcement appears to be an effort to deflect attention from evidence proving that the plaintiffs’ lawyers have been falsifying reports from the outset of the trial because the scientific evidence in the trial proves Chevron’s case.”
On Monday, Chevron had said that plaintiffs’ lawyers had filed bogus pollution reports to the court. [ID:nN05174755]
A Chevron spokesman declined to comment on the stipend Borja was receiving or his wife’s one-time involvement with the soil-testing company, but he said Borja had been involved in the logistics of getting soil samples sent to the United States.
Escobar, who was once active in Ecuador’s ruling party, said he did worry about the safety of himself and his family due to his revelations about Borja and Chevron.
“Borja told me that Chevron’s people are into everything, that they have a lot of power and that it would be better not to do anything,” he said on the call. “But my conscience tells me that there have been illegal acts committed and if I don’t denounce them then I, in effect, become part of them,” (Reporting by Braden Reddall)