Top Lawyer to Ecuador's President Indignant at Barbs by NY Judge
QUITO, Ecuador (CN) - Remarkably unguarded at Ecuador's presidential palace, the top legal adviser to President Rafael Correa gave a point-by-point refutation of the New York decision blocking enforcement of his country's $9.5 billion litigation with Chevron.
For nearly 90 minutes from his office inside Colonial Quito's Carondelet, also known as the Palacio de Gobierno - or the government's palace - attorney Alexis Mera spoke freely, and indignantly, about the nearly 500-page ruling that U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan delivered in Manhattan last week.
Though Chevron faced a $9.5 billion verdict in Lago Agrio, Ecuador, for oil contamination, Kaplan said the judgment was "procured by corrupt means," through bribery and the collusion of the Ecuadorean government, and blocked its collection.
Named after Texaco's former headquarters in Sour Lake, Texas, the Lago Agrio court granted the award to a class of 30,000 indigenous and farmer plaintiffs in 2011.
Mera took particular offense at two sections of Kaplan's ruling devoted to Correa's "influence" over the Lago Agrio trial.
"There are certain things that he takes for granted from Chevron," Mera said. "He only takes for granted the things that Chevron tells him to write."
Though an unnamed media contact of the Lago Agrio plaintiffs said Correa offered to "call a judge," Mera brushed this off as a "third-person" email.
As if speaking directly to Kaplan, Mera asked, "How could you take that for granted?"
Chevron spokesman Morgan Crinklaw remarked that the republic is "long on accusations and short on evidence."
Kaplan wrote that Correa had replaced Ecuador's director of public prosecutions, or fiscal general, with an old college roommate to amp up pressure for a settlement by prosecuting former Texaco attorneys Rodrigo Perez Pallares and Ricardo Reis Veiga.
Mera insisted, however, that the general in question, Washington Pesántez, was never Correa's roommate.
The men did once attend the same university, but the alleged conspiracy does not add up because the prosecution of Pallares and Veiga was dropped before it ever went to court, Mera said.
"What was the point here?" he asked. "The point is not whether one prosecutor is friend or another prosecutor is enemy. The point was that Mr. Kaplan is sustaining is that we, Ecuador, as a republic, want to prosecute Chevron lawyers, and we want to [send] them to jail."
Chevron raised similar arguments in urging U.S. representatives to revoke Andean trade preferences.
"Two of Chevron's attorneys in Ecuador were in fact later criminally indicted and forced to leave the country for their safety," the oil giant wrote in a May 18, 2012, letter to the Office of U.S. Trade Representative.
Indeed, Chevron fingered Mera in the same supposed conspiracy, citing an outtake from "Crude," a Joseph Berlinger documentary on the lawsuit in Lago Agrio. The oil giant gained access to portions of the documentary that hit the cutting room floor during discovery for the New York trial.
One of those clips showed Mera speaking with the Lago Agrio plaintiffs about the possibility of prosecuting Chevron's lawyers. The oil giant trumpeted it as evidence that Ecuador does not have an independent judiciary, but Mera noted that the actual clip shows him telling the Lago Agrio plaintiffs that he did not think there was evidence of a criminal case against Chevron's lawyers.
Chevron's YouTube page offers a translation of what Mera said about filing a suit with Ecuador's attorney general's office. "The thing is that ... I don't see it as a very ... uh, sustainable issue," Mera said, according to the transcript.
Reaching the same conclusion, Ecuador's prosecutor ultimately dropped the investigation.
"The Ecuadorean courts that Chevron said are controlled by Correa annulled the case and acquitted them," Mera emphasized.
Another outtake from "Crude" shows Mera asking to have the cameras turned off in a meeting with the Lago Agrio plaintiffs because taping his advice was "inappropriate."
Juan Pablo Saenz, an attorney for the Lago Agrio plaintiffs who participated in that meeting, said in an interview earlier this week that his team only rolled tape in the first place because they thought it was "completely appropriate," but he understood that the presence of the videographers made Mera uncomfortable.
Ecuador's procurador, similar to a U.S. attorney general, explained the basis for the aborted prosecution of Chevron's lawyers in a related interview at a far more bureaucratic government building than the opulent Carondelet.
Representing one of three generations of lawyers in his family, procurador Diego Garcia had a far more restrained and careful demeanor than the ebullient Mera, whose monogrammed cufflinks suited his palatial offices.
During a similarly unrestricted one-hour interview, the conservatively dressed and similarly spoken Garcia explained that the same Chevron attorneys who argued the Lago Agrio case helped draft a 1995 remediation agreement between Ecuador and Texaco.
The Lago Agrio plaintiffs, who called that remediation a "sham," called for Pallares and Veiga's prosecution for falsedad ideológico. This Ecuadorean legal concept punishes the publication of false information in the factual claims of a case, or actos, Garcia said.
The prosecutor ultimately determined that the case was not appropriate for criminal prosecution, and a civil prosecution was no longer possible by then because of the Ecuadorean equivalent of the statute of limitations, he added.
Meanwhile, Mera blasted what he called the "soap opera" Chevron has crafted on Ecuador's supposed interference in the courts.
Kaplan's ruling lumps such denials under party line by New York attorney Steven Donziger, the principal target of Chevron's fraud allegations. The ruling quotes several emails from Donziger urging officials to adopt this position when talking to the press.
Chevron meanwhile pointed to a letter from Human Rights Watch earlier this year that says Correa's overhaul of Ecuadorean judiciary relied on "highly questionable mechanisms that we believe severely undermine judicial independence in the country."
Another study from Transparency International, an NGO that measures corruption perceptions, noted slight improvement in how Ecuador is perceived under the Correa administration.
Defending the independence of the Lago Agrio trial, Mera compared the Correa administration's public expressions of support for the plaintiffs with then-Sen. Barack Obama's remarks sympathizing with them before he became president.
In 2006, Obama and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., reportedly told the U.S. Trade representative: "While we are not prejudging the outcome of the case, we do believe the 30,000 indigenous residents of Ecuador deserve their day in court."
Mera also was quick to note that Chevron acknowledged contacting Ecuadorean government no fewer than 18 times over the course of the Lago Agrio case, including two contacts with the Correa administration.
Those contacts, ironically, are detailed on one of Chevron's filings in Manhattan federal court, which Mera provided in paper form.
Correa mentioned these Chevron meetings at his most recent enlace ciudadano, a weekly address that he gives at different locations throughout Ecuador.
Speaking of the Chevron representatives, Correa told the Ambato crowd, in Spanish, "These scoundrels were accustomed to entering the Carondelet like a dog entering his home then."
Ecuadorean citizens in the audience could not miss the implications of the remark.
For most of Ecuador's history, the Carondelet had been off limits to the vast majority of Ecuadorean citizens until Correa opened it to the public after his election. The country's highest government building now also serves as a space for rotating art exhibitions and a permanent display of gifts other countries have bestowed upon President Correa. Among these is a bowl engraved with the name of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Tour guides now lead citizens and tourists alike around the palace to view the paintings, sculptures, majestic fountains, opulent chandeliers, government meeting rooms and a balcony overlooking Colonial Quito's Plaza Grande, where Correa stands every Monday for the Presidentia Guard Ceremony, a changing of the guards.
One of the final sites of the tour is the Salón Amarillo, or the Yellow Room, where portraits of Ecuadorean heads of state encircle both sides of the national emblem. Portraits of those elected by Parliament hang to the left of this emblem, and those of democratically elected presidents are placed to the right, a tour guide said.
Those who came to power though coups during Ecuador's turbulent history are not honored on the wall. This includes Gen. Guillermo Rodriguez Lara, who ruled over Ecuador when Texaco began drilling in Ecuador in 1972.
Ecuadorean tradition also does not allow for currently serving presidents to have their portrait in the Salón Amarillo.