House Dems Ask AG Garland to Review Chevron's 'Unjust Legal Assault' on Steven Donziger

Six members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus sent a letter Tuesday urging U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to immediately review an ongoing legal case involving human rights lawyer Steven Donziger, who has endured more than 600 days of house arrest related to his efforts to help hold oil giant Chevron accountable for its Ecuador disaster.

“We have deep concerns that the unprecedented nature of Mr. Donziger’s pending legal case is tied to his previous work against Chevron.”
—House Democrats’ Letter

“Environmental justice advocate Steven Donziger helped hold Chevron accountable for dumping toxic chemicals into Indigenous communities,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). “Now he’s facing an unprecedented and unjust legal assault.”

Along with Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), McGovern is leading the call for the U.S. Department of Justice to review the prosecution of Donziger by a corporate law firm with ties to Chevron.

Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) also signed the letter (pdf) requesting that Garland’s office “act quickly to conduct an immediate full and fair review of the deeply concerning process by which Mr. Donziger’s current case has thus far played out, and the equally troubling signal it sends to frontline communities in urgent need of legal support.”

Donziger, who represented more than 30,000 Indigenous people and farmworkers harmed by over three decades of oil drilling in the Ecuadorian Amazon, led the legal team that won a $9.5 billion judgement against Chevron in 2013.

The oil giant was found guilty of deliberately dumping more than 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater and other hazardous pollutants in the delicate ecosystem—resulting in a “rainforest Chernobyl” that has caused widespread suffering throughout the local population.

Although the ruling was upheld by three Ecuadorian courts, Chevron moved its operations out of the country to avoid paying for cleanup and alleged that the $9.5 billion settlement had been fraudulently obtained. 

U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the Southern District of New York, a former corporate lawyer with ties to the oil company, “granted Chevron a temporary restraining order against the Ecuador judgment in an effort to block enforcement of it anywhere in the world,” The Daily Poster’s Walker Bragman reported Wednesday.

As Bragman explained:

During the non-jury trial, former Ecuadorian judge Alberto Guerra, who presided over the case when it was first filed, testified that Donziger and his team had bribed him to ghostwrite the multi-billion dollar judgment against Chevron for presiding judge Nicolas Zambrano. Guerra claimed Zambrano had also been bribed and had offered him a percentage of his take. 

Guerra would later admit during an international arbitration that he had accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from Chevron and recant some details of his testimony. Despite Guerra’s admission, the tribunal ultimately sided with Chevron, finding that the multi-billion-dollar judgment had still been tainted by fraud and that the claims against the oil giant had been settled and released by the Ecuadorian government years earlier…

Relying largely on Guerra’s testimony, Kaplan ruled against Donziger in March 2014, alleging a vast conspiracy and finding that the attorney had acquired the Ecuador judgment through “corrupt means.” A federal appeals court would later uphold Kaplan’s ruling, disbarring Donziger from practicing law in New York. 

After its legal victory, Chevron sought to recoup more than $800,000 in legal fees from Donziger. The company’s lawyers demanded possession of the attorney’s personal computer and cell phone, which it claimed were necessary to enforce its judgment against him. Donziger refused to turn over his electronics, arguing he would be handing over privileged materials. 

“Kaplan responded by holding Donziger in civil and then criminal contempt of court and slapping him with the largest state sanction in the history of New York courts,” Bragman noted.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York chose not to prosecute the misdemeanor charge, “so in July 2019, Kaplan took the unusual step of turning the contempt case over to attorneys from the major corporate law firm Seward & Kissel LLP to act as special prosecutors,” Bragman added. “He also selected a colleague, Judge Loretta Preska, to hear the criminal case.”

Donziger, awaiting the start of his May 10 trial on a misdemeanor contempt of court charge, has been confined to his home since August 2019.

In their letter, the House Democrats wrote that “we are unaware of such restriction having been imposed on any lawyer in the United States facing a similar allegation.”

“We have deep concerns that the unprecedented nature of Mr. Donziger’s pending legal case is tied to his previous work against Chevron,” the lawmakers continued. “It is vital that attorneys working on behalf of victims of human rights violations and negative environmental impacts of corporations not become criminalized for their work.”

Warning of the chilling effects of corporate retaliation, the members of Congress added that “if these restrictions are permitted, advocates across this country will feel as though tactics of intimidation can succeed in stifling robust representation. The results of this case will have a lasting impact in the legal practice, suggesting that representation and advocacy can then impede one’s ability to exercise fundamental protections.”

The House Democrats’ letter is the latest in a series of appeals to the DOJ. As the members of Congress noted, “beleaguered Amazon communities have stood by Mr. Donziger throughout this case.”

“A coalition of 56 Nobel Prize Laureates, Amnesty International USA and other human rights organizations, and distinguished members of the European Parliament have issued statements, demanding Mr. Donziger’s immediate release from home detention, protesting the questionable and disparate treatment of Mr. Donziger by U.S. Courts, and requesting an investigation of potential judicial abuse,” the lawmakers added. “They also have called for the dismissal of the criminal contempt case against Mr. Donziger.”

As Bush said Tuesday, “Too often, Indigenous and frontline communities are denied the justice they deserve after racist fossil fuel pollution and corporate violence put their lives and livelihoods at risk.”

“Donziger’s successful lawsuit on behalf of Indigenous [Ecuadorians] was a remarkable exception. His bravery and brilliance will inspire others to fight back against corporate power,” Bush added. “Chevron’s attacks on him are a threat to safety, justice, and accountability.”

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