MANHATTAN (CN) - Two larger-than-life personalities on either side of the litigation over racketeering and oil spills in the Amazon clashed in a New York court Monday.
Taking the stand was Steven Donziger, a towering figure at 6-foot-3, who paints himself and his colleagues as targets of the "most well-funded corporate retaliation campaign in history," in his 63-page witness statement.
Although he never argued in an Ecuadorean court, Donziger is widely seen as the driving force behind a lawsuit there that resulted in a $9 billion judgment against Chevron. Donziger's advocacy for his Ecuadorean clients included political lobbying, finding financial backers to support the litigation, and media outreach to outlets like "60 Minutes," Vanity Fair and filmmaker Joseph Berlinger, who taped the litigation for the controversial documentary "Crude."
Donziger also landed celebrity support from the likes of Sting, who attended Monday's court hearing wearing a gray T-shirt seated next to his wife, Trudie Styler, a British actress who is also a prominent supporter of the Ecuadoreans.
"It's actually a sideshow," Sting told Courthouse News minutes before questioning began, referring to Chevron's allegations. "They'll try to do anything but talk about the real issue."
Directly behind the rock star sat Chevron's vice president and general counsel Hewitt Pate, in a business suit.
For Donziger's supporters, the real issue underlying the case against Chevron in Ecuador is the dumping of billions of gallons of oil in the rainforest by its predecessor, Texaco, which drilled there between 1972 and 1992.
Chevron spokesman Morgan Crinklaw dismissed the high-profile backing as an "unfortunate" sign that "Donziger continues to mislead well intentioned people."
Randy Mastro, who prosecuted mob cases before representing Chevron for the Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher law firm, contends that the case is about an elaborate fraud on an Ecuadorean court by corrupt judges and ghostwritten scientific reports. He took particular aim at Donziger, whom he has labeled a "criminal" during the course of his civil suit.
Days before the Ecuadorean court ruled against Chevron in February 2011, the oil giant filed a federal RICO suit against Donziger and his associates in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who is hearing the case without a jury.
Donziger's statement features a blanket denial of the allegations against him, a lengthy recitation of the evidence that Texaco sullied the rainforest, and a condemnation of the New York trial.
The first sentence of the document states: "I challenge at the most fundamental level the legitimacy of this proceeding and the appropriateness of the court's decision to take this case to trial despite the profound foundational problems we have identified in briefing."
The case, he has long argued, should never have gone to New York because the Ecuadoreans never sought to collect the judgment there. They have filed collections actions in Canada, Brazil and Argentina instead, and Chevron hopes to use a judgment from Kaplan to fight off those actions.
Donziger's statement, it seemed, had been written more for an appellate court than the one immediately hearing the case.
Judge Kaplan, for example, had made clear long before trial that he would not relitigate the evidence of pollution in Ecuador, an issue he determined to be irrelevant to whether Chevron's opponents committed fraud to secure the judgment.
Chevron already has moved to strike a large portion of Donziger's statement on those grounds.