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USA: Activists argue lawsuits and criminal proceedings against Steven Donziger are a form of SLAPP; Chevron refutes qualification

"Chevron Is Trying to Crush a Prominent Climate Lawyer—and Maybe the World", 11 August 2020.

...In the 1970s, the multinational energy company Texaco set up oil fields in northeast Ecuador...In 1992...the company exited the region, leaving a legacy so toxic that it’s been called “Amazon’s Chernobyl.” Texaco said it remediated its damages, but the majority of the wells it claims to have cleaned were still full of toxic pollutants...After 18 years of fighting, Donziger and his team won. On Valentine’s Day 2011 in the Lago Agrio court, Judge Nicolás Zambrano ordered Chevron to pay $18 billion in compensation...

“The environmental claims against Chevron are false and unsupported by scientific evidence,” Sean Comey, senior advisor of external affairs at Chevron, wrote in an email...“Donziger is an adjudicated racketeer,” said Comey. “He committed criminal acts in the U.S. and abroad in pursuit of his extortion scheme in the Ecuadorian courts.”

In 2012, Chevron invoked the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act—originally created to stop mafia activity in the 1970s—to file a case against Donziger, Camacho, and another plaintiff, Indigenous leader Javier Piaguaje, claiming the Ecuadorean decision was procured by bribery and fraud. The judge on the case was New York U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan, who in one previous suit had ruled in favor of tobacco companies without disclosing his previous industry ties. In the courtroom, he praised Chevron as “a company of considerable importance to our economy.”...the company’s central piece of evidence was the testimony of their sole witness: Alberto Guerra, a disgraced Ecuadorian judge...After meeting with Chevron’s lawyers 53 times, Guerra testified that Donziger and his team had offered the judge in the original trial a $500,000 bribe and had ghostwritten the 2011 decision against Chevron. In a related case three years later, he admitted he had lied in his testimony...

In 2014, after a full trial before Judge Kaplan, Donziger and the other defendants were found guilty of engaging in conspiracy and criminal conduct...In 2018, based on the judge’s findings, Donziger’s legal license was suspended without a hearing...When the prosecutors declined to press charges against Donziger, Judge Kaplan did something previously unheard of in the American judiciary: He appointed a private law firm to levy the criminal charges...This past March, Seward and Kissel, the firm handling the charges against Donziger, admitted for the first time that they’d counted Chevron as a client as recently as 2018...

Activists say Chevron’s counterattack on Donziger and the Ecuadorian plaintiffs is an example of a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or SLAPP lawsuit, which aim to intimidate and exhaust their opponents into silence. In some cases, purveyors of SLAPP suits will drop them just before they go to trial. In Donziger’s case, Chevron didn’t drop the civil RICO charges—but they did drop the monetary damages.

Chevron disputes this characterization of the suit. “The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York... held that the judgment against Chevron was [a] product of fraud and racketeering, finding it unenforceable in the United States,”...

Chevron says it has nothing to do with the current case against Donziger. “Donziger’s continuing lawlessness is now a matter for prosecutors and the U.S. courts to decide,” said Comey. “Chevron is not involved in Donziger’s criminal prosecution.” But in practice, Kaplan’s verdict in the RICO case against the lawyer means the company can refuse to pay the plaintiffs in the United States...

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