MANHATTAN (CN) — Now more than a half a year into his house arrest, environmental attorney Steven Donziger received a passionate recommendation to receive his law license back on Monday from the officer presiding over his bar proceedings in New York.
“My recommendation is that his interim suspension should be ended, and that he should be allowed to resume the practice of law,” bar referee John Horan declared in a 36-page report.
For his role in obtaining a $9.8 billion judgment against Chevron, Donziger has faced the threat of financial ruin from enormous legal fees, criminal prosecution and the suspension of his law license. He has spent more than six months wearing an ankle bracelet in his apartment in New York’s Upper East Side, pursued for the better part of a decade by one of the world’s most powerful oil companies after zealous litigation that one judge labeled a fraud.
“The extent of his pursuit by Chevron is so extravagant, and at this point so unnecessary and punitive, while not a factor in my recommendation, is nonetheless background to it,” Horan wrote.
A former federal prosecutor, Horan’s findings paint a starkly different image of Donziger than the one Chevron has advanced in U.S. courts for more than decade. Chevron has accused Donziger of fraud and racketeering, suing him under a statute designed to fight organized crime.
This was not the image of Donziger that Horan said he heard at bar proceedings last December.
“Several witnesses, all distinguished in their respective fields, testified as character witnesses,” Horan recounted, rattling off a list that included prominent attorneys, environmental advocates and Pink Floyd musician Roger Waters.
“Assessment of character is not an exact science, but we can all agree that the essential components are honesty, integrity, and credibility,” Horan observed. “It is far from clear that [Donziger] is lacking in those qualities as the committee argues.”
Adding that these witnesses put their reputations on the line by testifying, Horan continued: “None of those who testified for these qualities of Respondent are the sort who would carelessly toss off an opinion about character or misrepresent his reputation in the world community.”
Donziger’s pursuit of a large settlement against Chevron was not enough for Horan to find otherwise.
“If his interest in earning a large fee makes his character suspect, the entire bar is suspect,” Horan wrote.
The resounding recommendation in Donziger’s favor is remarkable considering Horan had been forced to accept the findings of U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who issued a nearly 500-page ruling six years ago largely endorsing Chevron’s allegations.
Donziger, who continues to maintain his innocence, expressed gratitude for Horan’s report.
“The hearing officer was not allowed to address what I believe is the falsity of Judge Kaplan’s findings, in particular his reliance on a narrative put forth by an admittedly corrupt witness paid huge sums by Chevron who later recanted much of his testimony,” Donziger wrote in a statement.
New York’s First Department, which reviews the referee’s decisions in bar proceedings, ruled that Horan must accept Kaplan’s factual findings as true, leaving him only to decide whether those acts were enough to disbar Donziger.
“But the hearing officer was allowed to speak the truth about my character and my value to the public interest,” Donziger added. “It took a lot of courage for him to do that, and I am very grateful.”
More than half a decade after the ruling against Donziger, his Texas-based attorney Richard Friedman continues to represent him and called him a unique client.
“I’ve been practicing law for 40 years you can’t do the kind of work I do without seeing a lot of unfairness in the system, but nothing comes remotely close to the unfairness of Steven’s been treated by our legal system,” Friedman said in a phone interview.
Chevron’s attorney Randy Mastro emphasized that the company was not a party to the bar proceedings but criticized the recommendation for departing from Kaplan’s ruling, which he noted was affirmed on appeal.
“If those damning findings against an attorney don’t warrant sanctions, what ever would?” asked Mastro, who is with Gibson Dunn. “At the end of the day, we continue to believe the state judges who review this referee’s nonbinding recommendation — and previously had to admonish him to apply those findings to this case — will see to it that justice is done here, just as it was in the federal courts.”
Calling the bar proceedings “decidedly unusual,” Horan noted that Donziger’s clients did not file a complaint against him. The bar committee moved to suspend Donziger’s license after the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined criminal charges against him and nearly two years after the Second Circuit affirmed Kaplan’s ruling.
“The chronology of this matter and the disinclination of the United States Attorney’s Office to pursue [Donziger] are facts that in the view of some observers mitigate the finding that [he] is a threat to the public interest,” Horan wrote.
As Horan’s recommendation now faces review by the First Department, Donziger’s prosecution for contempt of court continues in the Southern District of New York. Federal prosecutors declined to prosecute the case upon referral by Judge Kaplan, who appointed a private law firm to pursue the case in what legal experts call an extraordinarily rare maneuver.