Steven Donziger, a lawyer who was charged with fabricating evidence, promising bribes and even ghostwriting critical court documents in order to win a $19 billion judgment against Chevron for polluting Ecuador’s rainforests, is now on the college speaking circuit and touring many of America’s most prestigious universities.
On Tuesday, Mr. Donziger will be speaking at the Georgetown Center for Latin American Studies on a panel discussing “The fight of Ecuador’s indigenous community against the environmental damage caused by Chevron Texaco,” according to a posting on the school’s website.
Mr. Donziger will be joined on the panel by environmental lawyer Aaron Marr Page, who has written editorials in Mr. Donziger’s defense, and Jose D. Mangasha, an Ecuadorean community leader.
Last week, Mr. Donziger spoke before a crowd at Harvard Law School in an event billed as “The Next Chapter in the Chevron/Ecuador Litigation: Insider perspectives and implications for the future of transnational corporate liability.” The six-member panel also consisted entirely of sympathizers with Ecuador’s case.
Although Mr. Donziger’s case against Chevron has been hailed by the left as a heroic environmentalist triumph — one of the largest judgments ever against an American company — the U.S. court system found otherwise.
“Steven Donziger was found by a U.S. federal court to have committed numerous violations of federal laws — including extortion, money laundering, wire fraud, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations, witness tampering and obstruction of justice — in obtaining a judgment against Chevron in Ecuador,” Chevron spokesman Morgan Crinklaw said in a statement to The Washington Times. “I can think of no one less qualified than Mr. Donziger and his team to lecture students about legal ethics.”
Obviously, Mr. Donziger and his attorneys disagree. Mr. Donziger has denied any wrongdoing.
“He will be vindicated, and I don’t know why he shouldn’t be on the speaking circuit,” said Richard Friedman, Mr. Donziger’s trial attorney and partner at Friedman Rubin, in Washington state. “A lot of people recognize it’s a political case. People who take positions that are unpopular, against corporations and entities in power, are often on the wrong end of legal rulings.”
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan found last year that there was “voluminous” evidence of corruption against Mr. Donziger’s conduct in the case, including coercing an Ecuadorean judge to select an “independent consultant” who was paid by Mr. Donziger to evaluate evidence in the case, enlisting a Colorado consulting firm to write that consultant’s report, and personally exchanging coded emails to judges hearing the pollution case.
Judge Kaplan, an appointee of President Clinton, did find evidence of unknown-source oil pollution but wrote in his 484-page opinion: “Justice is not served by inflicting injustice. The ends do not justify the means. There is no ‘Robin Hood’ defense to illegal and wrongful conduct.”
The judge declared the Ecuadorean court’s judgment of damages unenforceable in the U.S.
As a result of the judgment, Chevron has refused to pay the settlement — which was reduced to $9.5 billion after a 2013 appeal. Mr. Donziger, still seeking to satisfy the judgment by seizing Chevron property in other countries where it has assets, has appealed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that U.S. courts have no right to declare Ecuadorean court judgments unenforceable.
“My view is [Mr. Donziger] should be disbarred. The evidence is so clear, and if held by the Court of Appeals, there should be an automatic disbarment,” said Gerald Walpin, an inspector general under President George W. Bush and a former president of the Federal Bar Council.
“It says something about our law schools that they are willing to bring in someone who doesn’t deny he hasn’t committed the crimes that Judge Kaplan said he did. At the very least, they should have a debate where someone on the other side could point out what the rule of law really means.
“But it’s typical of law schools today, unfortunately, many of them, submerge the rule of law and the search for the real facts in an emotional left-wing appeal,” said Mr. Walpin, a New York lawyer.
Georgetown University backs its invitation to Mr. Donziger.
“The case is fascinating, and we are studying the issue of oil production, environment and conflict with indigenous people in Ecuador in a class I teach on Andean politics and in other classes on indigenous movements,” said Marc Chernick, the director of Georgetown’s Center for Latin American Studies.
“An invitation to speak at Georgetown does not apply an endorsement of a speaker’s opinions, views or actions. Mr. Donziger has deep experience with the issue and is a public figure whose views are relevant. The case in Washington, D.C., is a part of the discussion,” he said.
The Institute for Global Law and Policy at Harvard Law School, which hosted Mr. Donziger last week, also stands by its decision to invite him and to stack the panel.
“We were interested in hearing about the impact of the case on international human rights, and we only invited individuals who could address that topic,” said Michelle Newman, who helped organize the event. “A representative from Chevron simply would not have been relevant to the panel.”
Kyle Pietari, another organizer for the Harvard event went one step further:
“This story is not about Mr. Donzinger. It is about the indigenous villagers of Ecuador who have been suffering from an environmental catastrophe for over two decades and still have not been compensated for their losses,” Mr. Pietari said.
“Any efforts by Chevron or the media to put the spotlight on Mr. Donzinger are public distractions from what matters most: that a grave injustice has been done, and our legal systems have tragically failed to help the people who were wronged.”
Their explanation leaves Ted Boutrous, who served as outside counsel on the Chevron case, flabbergasted.
“To me, its inexplicable that Harvard or any other university would want its students to get the perspective of Mr. Donziger on anything,” said Mr. Boutrous, a partner at Gibson Dunn in Los Angeles. “He and his collaborators engaged in a historically massive fraud on Chevron and the public, and the ethical violations alone should have professors saying we don’t want this guy getting anywhere around our students. He has no business talking about the law or trying to make things better in the world.”
On Monday, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on Mr. Donziger’s appeal. His attorneys are arguing that the U.S. needs to uphold the Ecuadorean judgment — that essentially the U.S. court system can’t trump Ecuadoreans, even if fraud transpired that persuaded the judge.
“This case should go down as the greatest abuse of the civil justice system ever,” Donziger spokesman Chris Gowen wrote in an email to The Times. “Chevron had a fair trial in the jurisdiction they chose, and they lost. The charade Chevron created in [Judge Kaplan’s court] will be reversed.”
Others have retreated from the fight.
Last year’s verdict threatened the merger of law giants Patton Boggs and Squire Sanders. Two partners at Patton Boggs who were wrapped up in the Ecuadorean case as Donziger allies agreed to leave the combined company.
Moreover, Patton Boggs withdrew from the pollution case last May, expressed “regret” it had it joined the lawsuit against Chevron and even promised to pay the oil company $15 million as a symbol of contrition, according to Bloomberg News.
Then, in February, Russ DeLeon, a key funder of the Ecuador lawsuit, said he would no longer dedicate money to the case and that he would give his 7 percent stake in the judgment — if it was ever retrieved — back to Chevron.
“Commencing in March 2007,” Mr. DeLeon said in a statement, “I provided funding to support the litigation in Ecuador in the good faith belief that I was supporting a worthy cause. However, I have since reviewed the March 4, 2014 opinion of Judge Kaplan of [the federal district court in Manhattan] and I have considered the evidence presented during trial. As a result, I have concluded that representatives of the Lago Agrio plaintiffs, including Steven Donziger, misled me about important facts. If I had known these facts, I would not have funded the litigation.”