- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2009

QUITO, Ecuador | An Ecuadorean court dealt the plaintiffs a setback Tuesday in a $27 billion environmental contamination lawsuit against Chevron Corp., accepting the presiding judge’s request to be removed from the case.

Judge Juan Evangelista Nunez asked to be recused earlier this month so the government could investigate Chevron’s allegations that he was involved in a bribery scheme.

A regional court in the northern state of Sucumbios accepted Judge Nunez’s request on Tuesday and named Judge Nicolas Zambrano as his replacement, said Pablo Fajardo, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

A verdict had been expected this year, but Mr. Fajardo told the Associated Press it would take Judge Nunez’s replacement “four to five months to get to know a case that has some 17,000 documents.”

The plaintiffs, who say they represent 30,000 inhabitants of the region, seek damages for cleanup and to compensate for illnesses they attribute to oil-drilling contamination from 1964-1990, when Texaco operated a consortium in the Amazon rain forest in which state-owned Petroecuador was a partner.

Chevron, which bought Texaco in 2001, says it was absolved of any liability by a 1998 agreement with Ecuador’s government that followed a multimillion-dollar cleanup.

Judge Nunez asked to be removed this month after Chevron released clandestinely recorded video in which two businessmen repeatedly ask him whether he planned to rule against Chevron and he is heard to answer “yes.”

Chevron says the businessmen were asked to pay million-dollar bribes for a remediation contract by a political ally of President Rafael Correa, who has expressed sympathy for the plaintiffs.

Chevron has long claimed that it can’t get a fair trial in Ecuador. It contends the judicial system is corrupt and that the alleged bribery scheme proves as much.

Judge Nunez denies involvement in any such scheme and says the video was “edited and manipulated.”

The plaintiffs, meanwhile, say they suspect the businessmen were colluding with Chevron in a sting operation aimed at discrediting both the judge and Mr. Correa’s government.

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