Chevron seeks $32 million in legal fees in Ecuador case

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Chevron Corp is seeking $32.3 million in legal fees from Steven Donziger and others who this month who were found by a judge to have used fraud to obtain a multibillion-dollar pollution judgment against Chevron in Ecuador.

In a filing late on Tuesday, Chevron asked a federal court in New York to order Donziger, a Harvard-educated lawyer, to reimburse it for the cost of bringing its racketeering case against him.

Morgan Crinklaw, a spokesman for Chevron, said the company was attempting to hold Donziger accountable for bringing what he called a fraudulent case in Ecuador.

A lawyer for Donziger, Deepak Gupta, said Chevron’s “eye-popping” fee request was a “transparent attempt” to intimidate anyone who might be thinking of suing the company for wrongdoing.

On March 4, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan found that Donziger used bribery and extortion to win the case in Ecuador, which was brought on behalf of people whose land was polluted by Texaco between 1964 and 1992. Chevron later acquired Texaco.

Kaplan found that Donziger bribed the Ecuadorean judge who oversaw the case and who issued an $18 billion judgment against Chevron in 2011. Ecuador’s high court cut that award to $9.5 billion last year.

Kaplan’s ruling, which followed a six-week non-jury trial in New York, bars Donziger and the villagers from attempting to collect on the judgment in the United States. Chevron has said it would seek to use the ruling to bolster challenges to attempts by the villagers to go after its assets in other countries.

Chevron’s fee request came the same day as Donziger appealed the March 4 ruling by Kaplan and asked him to put his order on hold while the appeals court considered the case.

In its court filing Tuesday, Chevron said the $32.3 million in fees included 36,837 hours billed by its lawyers at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Randy Mastro, the lead lawyer for Chevron, most recently billed at a rate of $1,140 an hour, the filings show.

Mastro was hired in January by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to conduct an internal inquiry into the scandal involving lane closings at George Washington Bridge.

Chevron’s fee request also reflected 139,747 hours billed by contract attorneys at Huron Consulting Group and Merrill Communications, which provided document review and other tasks, Chevron said.

Chevron’s Crinklaw declined Wednesday to say how much Chevron had spent overall in litigation over pollution in Ecuador. The company in court papers said the $32.3 million does not reflect all the work performed in connection with the racketeering case.

“Chevron is seeking to hold Mr. Donziger accountable for his actions by pursuing an award for the legal costs incurred in defending the company from his extortionate scheme and in prosecuting our successful RICO suit,” Crinklaw said.

Gupta, Donziger’s lawyer, said Donziger could not pay the fees.

“Steven is a solo environmental lawyer who works from the kitchen table of his apartment,” Gupta said. “Chevron knows he can’t actually pay those fees -- and that’s the point.”

The case is Chevron Corp v. Steven Donziger et al, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, No. 11-0691.

Reporting by Nate Raymond; editing by Andrew Hay