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Chevron Can’t Nix Lawyer for Subject of Its RICO Suit

MANHATTAN (CN) - Chevron lost a bid to block San Francisco-based criminal defense attorney John Keker from representing the New York-based lawyer largely responsible for winning an $18.2 billion verdict against Chevron last month in an Ecuadorean court.

Both parties recently appealed the Ecuadorean court's verdict for damages related to massive oil contamination in the Amazon.

Chevron says the judgment is a fraud that should be revoked because it was obtained through a corrupt judicial system. The Ecuadoreans who won the judgment say that damages they stand to receive is not enough to remediate, what they call, the "world's largest oil spill" allegedly perpetrated by Texaco before it was acquired by Chevron in 2001. In September, the Ecuadoreans submitted a damages estimate of $113 billion.

Regardless of the outcome of those appeals, the future of that award stands in doubt amid Chevron's campaign to discredit the trial and attorney Steven Donziger, whom the company sued for anti-racketeering law violations in Manhattan District Court on Feb. 1.

Donziger retained the law firm Keker & Van Nest to defend him against the allegations in February.

Since the filing of the RICO suit, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan has ruled mostly in Chevron's favor. The judge granted Chevron a temporary restraining order that barred the Ecuadoreans from collecting on the multibillion-dollar judgment before it was even announced. He then followed up with a preliminary injunction on March 8.

Keker filed a memorandum to transfer the case from Kaplan's docket on Feb. 28, accusing the judge of bias and of having encouraged Chevron to file the RICO suit.

After Kaplan rejected the motion, the law firm representing Chevron said that Keker's memorandum violated Kaplan's order not to file new briefs. Chevron accused Keker of making "false and misleading statements" and sought to block his appointment on March 4.

In one of the rare rulings to favor Donziger, Kaplan denied Chevron's request on March 9. The judge's two-page order states that there was "no evidence" that Keker "knowingly made false and misleading statements."

Kaplan still chided Keker for disobeying a court order. "If there were inaccuracies, the court is confident that Mr. Keker will be more careful in the future," Kaplan wrote. "It trusts also that he henceforth will conform his actions and those of his firm to the requirements of the rules and the court."

That same day, Kaplan also admitted attorneys for Donziger's co-defendants in the RICO case: Stratus Consulting, Douglas Beltman and Ann Maest.

In a phone interview, a spokeswoman for the Ecuadorean plaintiffs said Chevron's lawyers are "running scared" from the competition. "Chevron doesn't want any high-profile attorney running head-to-head with them," spokeswoman Karen Hinton said.

Chevron, represented by Gibson Dunn, did not immediately respond to phone and e-mail inquiries for comment.

Hinton, the spokeswoman, said that Gibson Dunn has a habit of trying to remove high-profile opposing attorneys. She noted that the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Patton Boggs, which also represents the Ecuadoreans, has sued Chevron for trying to disqualify one of its attorneys.

"First, it was Patton Boggs. Now, it's John Keker," Hinton said. "They just don't like the competition."

The opposing lawyers will square off next at a discovery hearing on March 15.

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