Steven Donziger got a head start on home confinement when a federal judge ordered criminal charges that prosecutors declined to bring.
(CN) — The story of the extraordinary criminal prosecution that bypassed the U.S. Attorney’s Office and left one American lawyer under eight months of house arrest, and counting, is spread over decades and continents.
On Thursday morning, it brought together 30 Nobel laureates from around the world in an open letter that lauds Steven Donziger as a hero, and casualty, of sprawling litigation with the oil giant Chevron.
“Environmental activism in many countries results in murder,” the petition from the prize winners states. “Chevron’s strategy is death by a thousand cuts through the manipulation of a legal system it has managed to stack in its favor. Its goal is to intimidate and disempower the victims of its pollution and a lawyer who has worked for decades on their behalf.”
From his Upper East Side apartment this morning, Donziger announced his newfound support over Zoom, which has become the go-to videoconferencing software of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I believe my historically unprecedented pretrial detention for a lawyer, now on its 255th day, is intimately connected to my effective and successful advocacy for these communities,” he said.
Over a decade earlier, Donziger helped a group of Ecuadorean farmers secure what was an unprecedented judgment against Chevron, but they have been unable to collect it. After a New York federal judge blocked the judgment as a fraud, Chevron sought reimbursement of its legal fees by targeting Donziger’s private assets.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan was still presiding over the case. He ordered Donziger to turn over his computer, phone, electronic devices and passport. When the lawyer appealed, Kaplan accused him of refusing to comply and referred criminal contempt charges to federal prosecutors in Manhattan.
Kaplan would not take no for an answer when the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Donziger — drafting charges himself and putting the case in the hands of Seward & Kissel, a private law firm that counted Chevron as a client as recently as 2018.
“In a normal criminal case in our federal system in the United States, a person is charged by a grand jury comprised of citizens and then prosecuted by professional lawyers in the U.S. Attorney’s Office who are obligated to adhere to high ethical standards,” Donziger said today. “In this case, none of this happened. Instead a single judge charged me and handpicked a longtime colleague to preside over my criminal contempt case.”
The laureates supporting Donziger on Thursday hail from around the world — Austria, Iran, Guatemala, Norway, Canada, Liberia, Yemen, Switzerland, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, to name a few.
A third of them were awarded the Peace Prizes, with the others achieving distinctions in economics, medicine, physics, literature and chemistry.
“It’s not shocking to me that laureates from every discipline have signed this statement of support,” Jody Williams, whose work in banning landmines made her a Nobel laureate in 1997, told reporters in Donziger’s press conference.
“They believe in the rule of law,” she added. “They believe in justice.”
When informed about the Nobel laureates’ statement, Chevron spokesman Sean Comey pointed to the company’s stretch of legal victories rather than directly addressing the petition.
“Decisions by courts in the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Gibraltar and an international tribunal in The Hague confirm that the fraudulent Ecuadorian judgment should be unenforceable in any court that respects the rule of law,” Comey wrote.
Few of these courts, like the ones the United States and industry-friendly investor tribunal, addressed the merits of Chevron’s claims that the Ecuadorean judgment was procured by fraud. Argentinian, Brazilian and Canadian courts found that Chevron’s corporate structure insulated its subsidiaries from having to pay the award.
Ecuadorean courts affirmed the $9.8 billion judgment against Chevron on appeal, but Chevron has no assets there.
While it was Kaplan who ordered Donziger’s prosecution, the case is pending now before the Southern District of New York’s former chief, U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska.
Though the criminal case began last July, Seward & Kissel only disclosed its work for Chevron two weeks ago. Downplaying that those ties, the firm asserts that the particular attorneys assigned to Donziger’s case were never retained by Chevron.
For Donziger, the firm’s denials are undermined by its belated disclosure. Represented by criminal defense attorney Andrew Frisch, he says the monthslong subterfuge of the conflict of interest is disqualifying.
Despite blistering efforts to disbar, discredit, bankrupt and imprison him, Donziger retains a preternatural optimism and defiance.
“It feels to me like punishment without a crime,” Donziger said. “It clearly, in my opinion, is designed to break my will and crush my spirit.”
After stacking up a string of losses in U.S. courts, fortunes changed for Donziger in February when a bar referee recommended that Donziger should able to continue practicing law.
“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,” bar referee John Horan wrote.
Even in isolation, Donziger has advocated for Ecuadoreans — and not only on the environment. He has drawn attention to how the Covid-19 pandemic has battered the country’s economic engine of Guayaquil, an issue that he connects to his environmental battle by noting that the judgment also including funding to construct hospitals.
“How many people have died because they had their immune systems compromised by Chevron’s pollution and then it’s compounded by its failure to actually pay the court judgments so people could get treatment?” he asked.
Donziger secured the 2011 judgment against Chevron after a very public media-relations battle that included coverage in Vanity Fair, a Hollywood documentary titled “Crude,” and visits to the jungle from the likes of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
Proving that Donziger’s star power has not dwindled, actor Alec Baldwin and Waters joined the press briefing.
“Texaco/Chevron, they are the Harvey Weinstein of the environmental pollution issue,” declared Baldwin, who hosted Donziger on his WNYC podcast.
Amazon Watch’s associate director Paul Paz y Mino emphasized that the fight is more than about Donziger.
“Now they’re going to twist and turn this in every way possible because they want it to be about a fight between Steven Donziger and Kaplan or lawyers here and avoid the reality of the fact that people are still suffering in Ecuador from this contamination,” Paz y Mino said.
The Ecuadoreans have struggled to collect their judgment in Argentina and Brazil, where the cases were dismissed, as well as Canada, where an appeal remains ongoing.
“The case is continuing, and Chevron will, I believe, be forced to comply with its legal obligations to the people of Ecuador,” Donziger said.