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Disbarred environmental lawyer sentenced to prison for criminal contempt

Citing “a pattern of contumacious behavior,” a federal judge in New York on Friday sentenced a disbarred attorney who fought Chevron in Ecuador over rainforest pollution to six months in prison on six counts criminal contempt for defying court orders.

MANHATTAN (CN) — “Given Mr. Donziger’s repeated willful refusal to obey court orders … it seems only the proverbial 2-by-4 between the eyes will instill in him any respect of law,” U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska said on Friday, just prior to ordering the the maximum possible sentence on six misdemeanor counts of contempt of court.

Steven Donziger faced up to six months in prison after a bench trial in July ended with a guilty conviction for disobeying the orders of U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in an underlying RICO case where Donziger and indigenous Ecuadoreans living in the oil-polluted Amazon rainforest stood accused of obtaining a $9.8 billion verdict against Chevron through a fraud on Ecuador's court system.

Donziger, who has spent nearly 800 days under court-ordered house arrest in his Manhattan apartment, had requested a sentence of time served.

Judge Preska did not order any supervised release to follow Donziger's six months of imprisonment, and added a special assessment of $10.

Rita Glavin, the court-appointed special prosecutor in the case, made no specific recommendation with respect to Donziger’s sentence, deferring entirely to the court on the appropriate sentence.

Judge Kaplan, a Clinton appointee, drafted the contempt counts himself and tapped Glavin as private counsel to lead the prosecution against Donziger after the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to do so. 

Judge Preska, a George H. W. Bush appointee who presided over the bench trial in May, did not let Donziger off the hook for disobeying Kaplan's orders to, among other things, turn over his computer, phones and other electronics.

The extremely rare contempt case was an offshoot of legal proceedings stemming from a 2011 ruling by an Ecuadorean judge who ordered Chevron to pay $19 billion in damages, later reduced by an appeals court to $9.5 billion, for rainforest damage attributed to Texaco when it operated an oil consortium from 1972 to 1990. Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001.

Donziger’s attorneys, including the iconic Ron Kuby, repeatedly suggested throughout the bench trial that Preska had prejudged the case from the beginning. As for the sentence, Kuby said his disbarred client had already been punished enough.

Environmental lawyer Steven Donziger (center) addresses supporters outside of Manhattan federal court on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021, after he was sentenced to six months in prison for contempt of court. (Josh Russell/Courthouse News)

“He has been humiliated, denigrated, and disbarred. He has been attacked by professional PR firms and prosecuted by private law firms,” Kuby wrote in a September sentencing letter. “He has been confined to his home for 787 days."

Kuby, a legendary New York civil rights lawyer who is name-dropped in “The Big Lebowski,” asked Judge Preska in a letter on Thursday to consider to recent findings by independent United Nations experts that Donziger’s home confinement was “arbitrary” and violates international human rights law.

 At the sentencing hearing, Judge Preska told Kuby that she would be taking U.N. Working Group’s report “for what it is worth.”

When Donizger was convicted in July, his co-counsel Martin Garbus predicted that Preska’s ruling will be reversed on appeal.

Roger Waters, the 78-year old founding member of Pink Floyd, attended a prehearing rally outside of the courthouse on Friday morning, where he condemned the court-appointed prosecution and fossil fuel industry.

“How about you put an end to this farce,” the British psychedelic rock pioneer castigated to dozens of Donziger’s supporters. “How about a sentence of time already served, yeah, that sounds about right, time already served.”

In August, Preska denied Donizger’s request for a retrial.

The rock icon Roger Waters greets fans outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021, following the sentencing of environmental lawyer Steven Donziger to six months in prison for contempt of court. (Josh Russell/Courthouse News Service)

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