Biased Judge in Chevron’s RICO Suit Gets Called Out

By Rainforest Action Network
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As oil giant Chevron has pursued its “distract, distort, and delay” strategy to evade responsibility for polluting Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, the company has found U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan to be very sympathetic to its claims. According to a brief just filed by the Ecuadorean plaintiffs’ US lawyer, Kaplan might even have gone so far as to suggest new abusive legal maneuvers for the company to pursue.

But first, a quick bit of history on “the case,” which actually involves several cases in the U.S. and Ecuador.

This legal battle goes all the way back to 1993, when a group of Indigenous and rural Ecuadoreans filed a lawsuit against Texaco in New York federal court. Chevron bought Texaco in 2001, and Chevron’s lawyers argued that New York was not the proper jurisdiction for the suit. So in 2002 U.S. District Judge Saul Rakoff granted Chevron’s motion to have the case moved to Ecuador. As a condition of the transfer, Chevron agreed to honor the judicial process and abide by the verdict issued by the court in Lago Agrio, Ecuador. But there’s been little to no honor in any of Chevron’s actions since.

In 2011, almost two decades after the initial lawsuit was filed in New York, the judge presiding over the case in Ecuador found Chevron guilty and ordered the company to pay $8.6 billion to clean up its mess. It was a major victory for the Ecuadoreans who had withstood an endless barrage of abusive and bullying legal maneuvers and dirty tricks from Chevron. The company, of course, immediately proclaimed the judgment illegitimate and refused to pay.

So much for honoring the judicial process

For the past few years, Chevron has embarked on a series of legal tactics here in the United States that are intended to discredit the Ecuadorean court system and smear the reputations of the Ecuadorean plaintiffs and their legal representation. Two weeks prior to the verdict, for instance, Chevron filed a RICO lawsuit against several of the Ecuadorean plaintiffs, as well as their Ecuador- and US-based legal teams.

The RICO suit was just the latest in a long line of abusive tactics. There is evidence that while the case was still in the Southern District Court of New York, Texaco helped write a memo that was sent by the Ecuadorean ambassador requesting that the U.S. State Dept. intervene and cause the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims. Later, Chevron lobbied the White House to pressure Ecuador into dropping the case. The company also attempted to entrap one of the Ecuadorean judges in a sting operation. In fact, Chevron has practically declared war on the Ecuadorean judiciary, filing numerous motions before the court, threatening judges with criminal charges and jail sentences, and taking out ads in national newspapers calling the court, the judges, and the experts corrupt – all conduct that Chevron would never attempt in the United States.

But it’s Chevron’s allegations that the Ecuadorean plaintiffs are mobsters engaged in a vast criminal conspiracy to extort money from the poor little corporate behemoth that is particularly outrageous. And where might Chevron have found a court willing to entertain this absurd allegation? Why, Judge Kaplan’s court, and none other.

US lawyer Steven Donziger, a human rights lawyer who has been fighting for justice for the people of the Ecuadorian Amazon over the past decade, is who Chevron is focusing on as the mastermind behind the imagined criminal conspiracy. Donziger just filed a brief arguing that Chevron filed the RICO suit to evade the promise to abide by the ruling in Ecuador that the company made to Judge Rakoff. The brief also claims that Chevron deliberately neglected to cite the original 1993 lawsuit when filing the RICO suit because that would ensure the case found its way on to Kaplan’s docket and not Rakoff’s.

In addition to being biased in Chevron’s favor, Kaplan allegedly encouraged Chevron to file the RICO suit in the first place. At a September hearing, Kaplan said, “Now, do the phrases Hobbs Act, extortion, RICO, have any bearing here?”— obviously signaling that he’d be willing to hear such allegations made in his courtroom. As Donziger’s brief says, “It is no wonder that Chevron would seek to have the [RICO suit] assigned to the very judge who invited and encouraged its instigation.”

Kaplan wrote to the U.S. State Department requesting input on the implications of Chevron’s RICO suit for international relations with Ecuador, but the State Dept. replied with a big fat “No comment.” Translation: You and Chevron are on your own, Kaplan.