NEW YORK (AP) — A New York lawyer who fought Chevron over oil pollution in Ecuador is guilty of criminal contempt of court for repeatedly and willfully defying a judge’s orders, a judge ruled Monday.
U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska in Manhattan wrote in a lengthy opinion that Steven Donziger’s conviction does not question the sincerity of his devotion to the cause of Ecuadorians who went to court decades ago over damage pollution caused to their land. And she said she did not question that he felt Chevron treated him unfairly.
"But ‘a lawyer, of all people, should know that in the face of a perceived injustice, one may not take the law into his own hands,’” Preska said of an attorney who has spent most of the last two years in home confinement in Manhattan.
A sentencing date was not immediately set.
Martin Garbus, an attorney for Donziger, predicted in a statement that Preska's ruling will be reversed on appeal.
“We will file that appeal on the day of sentencing. Her decision is an attempt to cover up an unconstitutional prosecution funded by Chevron,” he said.
In a statement, Donziger called the ruling an “obvious travesty of justice.”
“The decision marks a sad day for the rule of law, for our democracy, and for our planet,” he said. “The United States has now become one of those countries where environmental advocates are attacked, put in jail, or even murdered for doing their jobs successfully.”
A message for comment was left with Chevron.
The contempt case was an offshoot of legal proceedings stemming from a 2011 ruling by an Ecuadorean judge who ordered Chevron to pay $19 billion in damages, later reduced by an appeals court to $9.5 billion, for damage Texaco caused to a rainforest when it operated an oil consortium from 1972 to 1990. Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001.
In 2014, U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan in Manhattan invalidated the Ecuador judgment, finding it was obtained through fraud, bribery, witness tampering and other misconduct.
Chevron has long argued that a 1998 agreement Texaco signed with Ecuador after a $40 million cleanup absolves it of liability and says that Ecuador’s state-run oil company is responsible for “any existing environmental and social conditions in the area.”
The Ecuadorean plaintiffs say the cleanup was a sham and didn’t exempt third-party claims.
An international arbitration tribunal in the Hague has ruled that the $9.5 billion judgment obtained by Ecuadorian plaintiffs represented by a legal team led by Donziger violated Chevron’s rights. It said the judgment should not be recognized or enforced because parts of it were “corruptly ghostwritten” in return for the promise of a bribe. The tribunal did not, however, absolve Chevron of potential liability for pollution.
Chevron has insisted there is no merit to the allegations of environmental harm.