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Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
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Ecuadorean Judge Gets ‘New York Welcome’ From Chevron

MANHATTAN (CN) - A Chevron lawyer on Tuesday gleefully grilled the Ecuadorean judge who ordered the company to pay billions for oil contamination in the Amazon.

Judge Nicolas Zambrano delivered Chevron an unwanted valentine on Feb. 14, 2011, in the form of an $8 billion penalty, later increased to $19 billion, for pollution of the Amazon.

Four other Ecuadorean judges had been recused from the case before Zambrano, amid allegations of misconduct or corruption. The case had previously been filed in New York against Chevron's predecessor Texaco, but Chevron had pushed to move the case to the Amazon in 2003.

The company has long regretted that decision.

Its lead attorney Randy Mastro, who prosecuted mob cases in between stints at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, claimed that Chevron's courtroom opponents had been attempting to extort them long before the ink dried on Zambrano's judgment.

The oil giant filed a racketeering suit in Manhattan against its courtroom opponents from Lago Agrio, taking special aim at attorney Steven Donziger. It called Zambrano's final judgment ghostwritten in a trial plagued by skewed scientific reports and corrupt judges.

Alberto Guerra, the first judge to hear the case against Chevron in Ecuador, recently testified in New York that the Ecuadoreans bribed him to write the judgment for Zambrano.

During opening arguments weeks ago, Mastro remarked that it was originally uncertain whether Zambrano would come to New York to take the stand because the Ecuadorean judge stood him up for a pre-trial meeting in Lima, Peru. Mastro promised at the time to give Zambrano a "New York welcome" if he would visit Manhattan.

On Tuesday, Chevron pulled Zambrano into court as an "adverse witness," meaning that Zambrano would have been expected to testify against the oil company's case.

Mastro, a spritely attorney with wavy gray hair, a pinstripe suit, and a flair for the dramatic, seemed to relish the opportunity to undermine Zambrano's insistence that he wrote the judgment by himself and accepted no bribes.

As if winding up for a pitch, he asked Zambrano whether he had worked "very hard" and poured his "heart and soul" into the ruling that Chevron alleges he did not write.

Zambrano, a bald man who sat stolid behind rectangular glasses as he delivered short answers through a translator, said he worked many hours, days and several weekends.

Mastro then quizzed Zambrano about his alleged handiwork, asking him to name what the author of the judgment called "most powerful carcinogenic agent considered in this decision."

At the time, a copy of the Ecuadorean judgment lay on the witness stand, and Mastro warned him not to read it.

U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who is presiding over the case without a jury, interrupted, "The record will reflect that the witness has been leafing through the document."

Zambrano conceded, "I don't recall, exactly, but if you give the names, perhaps I will remember."

For his next question, Mastro prodded Zambrano to name what the judgment characterized as the "statistical data of highest importance in delivering this ruling."

Judge Kaplan again announced for the court stenographer that Zambrano had tried to read the Ecuadorean judgment, which he then ordered to be taken away from the witness.

This time, Zambrano hazarded an answer: a report by Gerardo Barros.

Displaying the text of the judgment on the screen, Mastro pointed to the actual answer: a scientific study titled "Cancer en la Amazonia Ecuatoriana," also known as the San Sebastian study.

When asked what the judgment's legal theory of causation, Zambrano replied simply, "No recuerdo," which the translator informed the court meant "I don't remember."

Although Zambrano acknowledged that he speaks neither English nor French, Mastro noted that citations from U.S., British and Australian courts appear in the Ecuadorean judgment. The judge replied that his 18-year-old assistant helped him research the cases on the Internet.

Zambrano added that he did not know whether the assistant understood these languages either, and he acknowledged that the room where he claims to have written the judgment did not contain a Spanish-to-English dictionary. He said he destroyed the notes that he took in support of his ruling.

Before the court recessed for lunch, examination turned to Zambrano's relationship with Guerra, the alleged ghostwriter. Zambrano acknowledged that Guerra helped draft some of his orders in the years leading up to the judgment against Chevron.

Though Zambrano insists that Guerra never assisted with the Chevron litigation, Mastro claimed that the company found several draft orders in the case in Guerra's computer. Also found was a bank deposit slip bearing Zambrano's cedula number, the Ecuadorean equivalent of a Social Security number, and an initialed signature that the judge conceded "is similar to mine."

Lawyers for the Ecuadoreans portray Guerra's testimony as the product of Chevron's largesse. Transcripts show that Guerra accepted tens of thousands of dollars in a suitcase from Chevron representatives, and is expected to receive at least $326,000 total on top of the services of an immigration lawyer, plus a car and other perks.

Chevron contends these payments were transparent and necessary to relocate and guarantee the safety of their witness, and that the physical evidence that he provided corroborate his tale. Guerra reportedly acknowledged that he exaggerated his tale on the witness stand, but he largely stood by his original allegations.

Mastro's interrogation of Zambrano continued well into the afternoon.

Defense attorneys for the Ecuadoreans are expected to begin their questioning on Wednesday.

Representatives for this group insisted after the hearing that Mastro's performance relied upon "poor translation and semantics" without allowing Zambrano to explain his answers more fully.

This "show for the press" would ultimately give his opponents grounds for appeal, the Ecuadoreans said.

Donziger's attorney Christopher Gowen played upon Mastro's welcome to Zambrano in a statement.

"I think Mr. Mastro owes the entire New York bar, with its prestigious history a 'New York apology' for his conduct today," Gowan said. "It is ironic that Mr. Mastro was the very person that waived a jury trial in this case which would have been an opportunity to give all of the witnesses in this case a true New York welcome."

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