On October 1, 2021, human rights lawyer, Steven Donziger, was given a 6 month custodial sentence — punishment for winning a $9 billion judgment against Chevron for poisoning the Amazon with oil sludge. On the morning of his sentencing hearing, I spoke extensively with Donziger about his extraordinary case.
Denied bail while awaiting his appeal, Donziger began his sentence on October 27, 2021 at the federal prison in Danbury, CT. As he began serving his 6 month custodial sentence — which is draconian for a misdemeanor — we began posting video clips each week from this interview to help keep Donziger’s case in the public eye. As Donziger approaches the end of his sentence, and we reach the end of our interview, we’ve collected all the clips together for the first time in this post.
On December 9th, 2021, prison officials released Donziger, allowing him to serve the remainder of his sentence at home. However, on February 9, 2022 — having had his ankle bracelet removed just days before — he was told he had to report to a halfway house in the Bronx, where he was confined, without any of the normal privileges (such as outdoor activity) given to other detainees. Five days later, on February 14, 2022, he was sent home, where he remains under house arrest.
Having been denied his liberty in the two years leading up to his trial, by April 25, 2022 when his 6 month sentence ends, Donziger will have spent a total of 993 days in detention — 45 of them in prison — for a misdemeanor charge which carries a maximum sentence of 180 days.
They can imprison Donziger, but they cannot silence him. Please help raise awareness for Donziger’s case — and the crimes committed by Chevron in the Amazon — by sharing this story.
Part 1: “A corporate criminal prosecution, orchestrated by Chevron”
Greg Palast: You could end up in a federal penitentiary for up to six months. How do you and your family feel about this?
Steven Donziger: We’re not happy about it. It’s scary, for me and my family — maybe more so for them than for me. I have a 15-year old son. But it’s untenable, the situation as is. I mean, I’ve been in house arrest now for two years and two months on a misdemeanor. No other person in US history has served even a day in jail for this crime. So it would be entirely inappropriate, in my opinion, for Judge Preska to put me in jail for even one day, much less six months. However, things have happened in this case that are very unusual, irregular, and I would say abusive, starting with the two year pretrial detention, denial of a jury, denial of a neutral judge.
Judge Preska, for example, is a leader of the Federalist Society, to which Chevron is a major donor. I’m being prosecuted, not by the government, but by a private law firm that has Chevron as a client. This is a corporate criminal prosecution, orchestrated by Chevron, financed by Chevron, carried out by a Chevron law firm, before a Chevron-linked judge. It’s that simple.
This isn’t a normal case. It’s irregular, and I would say it’s abusive, and I would say it’s corrupt. So… how do I feel? Not great. I don’t trust the process I’ve been subjected to. I feel like I live in this sort of no man’s land in American jurisprudence where the rule of law does not apply to Steven Donziger, because of my success as a human rights advocate in holding Chevron accountable for massive oil pollution in the Ecuadorian Amazon. So that’s the state of play.
Part 2: “Chevron is trying to criminalize its opponents”
Donziger: Chevron, and the judges, who are their allies, are using this process to try to criminalize my legitimate human rights lawyering, as a way to taint the Ecuador judgment so that Chevron doesn’t have to pay the people of Ecuador that it poisoned. And also to send a message of intimidation to other human rights lawyers and environmental advocates so they stay away from this work. The work being holding major polluters accountable for their environmental atrocities, in this case, Chevron’s environmental atrocities.
So, putting an ankle bracelet on a human rights lawyer, when there’s no valid justification to do so, is part of the logic of this abuse of the system, where Chevron is trying to criminalize its opponents as a way to get away with the environmental crimes they committed in Ecuador. And not just an Ecuador, but other many other countries around the world, so that people don’t get the dangerous idea — dangerous to Chevron that is — that they think they can actually hold the company accountable in a court of law, like we have successfully done.
And I want to be very clear, I’m wearing an ankle bracelet because I’m good at my job, okay. Because we were successful, not because we did anything wrong. That’s why this ankle brace it is on my ankle. There’s an abuse of process to try to criminalize legitimate advocacy that Chevron, and other fossil fuel companies, find way too threatening for their business model.
Part 3: “I’m confident that I did the right thing”
Palast: They just want your phone and computer. Why not hand them over?
Donziger: Well, I have a couple of responses to that. One is, I’m ethically obligated not to turn it over. Because on those devices is my entire case file, which is privileged information. Attorney-client privileged information. That’s the sacrosanct area of the law of the attorney-client relationship. And it’s a privilege that’s owned, by the way, by the people of Ecuador, whom I represent.
And if I were to turn that over, I would be completely betraying my own clients. I would be putting their lives in danger, because Chevron would get all this information about where they are, where they live, things they’ve said. Chevron would have a front row seat into our internal deliberations as a legal team, about our strategy, which is illegal, for them to know about that. So, the order to turn that over is illegal.
When I got that order, you know, I told Judge Kaplan, I said, I can’t really do this. I need to appeal this. So, when I sought an appeal, sought additional judicial review of this order that no one had heard of ever coming down before, he charged me with criminal contempt, for appealing the lawfulness of his own order. I mean, it was crazy.
I’ve never said I’ll never turn over my computer. I’m happy to turn over my computer, but only with proper protocols in place, to be sure that privileged information is protected, and that never existed in Judge Kaplan’s order. So, I’m confident that I did the right thing, the legal thing, the ethical thing. And I think almost any lawyer faced with the situation I was in would have done the same thing.
Part 4: “It’s not altruism. I like the work”
Palast: You graduated from Harvard Law School with Barack Obama. You could have cashed in. You’ve been doing this three decades now, since 1993, I understand. Why didn’t you just cash in?
Donziger: Well, you know, I went to law school with the express purpose of taking whatever legal talents I could develop in myself and using them on behalf of people who really needed help. That was always my purpose in going to law school, and I’ve stayed the course for my entire career.
So, you know, Barack Obama went his way, I went my way. He became President of the United States. I spent a lot of time sloshing around oil pits in the Amazon, trying to help people. He just got, with his wife, a $60 million book deal, and I got all my money taken by Chevron. But we’re the same age, and I think we still respect each other. We just went on different paths.
Palast: I’m not knocking him…But you’ve given up salary for three decades, you worked for the Cofan, the indigenous people of the Ecuadorian rainforest…
Donziger: Well, first of all, just to be clear, this wasn’t the only case I worked on. I worked on a lot of cases and I was able to make a decent living for many years. You know, this case is not pro bono. I mean, the idea is, if there’s a recovery, my legal fees will be paid. Although Judge Kaplan has ruled I cannot collect my fees. Basically took years and years of legal work and, from a financial standpoint, threw it out the window.
But, you know, to me the money was always secondary to the work and to the commitment to justice. That might sound naive, especially in light of what’s happening to me now, but I went to law school, again, to try to advance the cause of justice in our world. I didn’t know exactly how that would play out. I didn’t know what case I would take, what people I would serve, but that’s what I like to do. That’s what gives me career satisfaction. It’s not altruism. I like the work.
Yes, I would like to make some money too, and I have. I just didn’t anticipate that a judge would have the power, based on an abuse of process, to order Chevron to clean out my bank accounts. But the last chapters of this story, Greg, have yet to be written. I mean, I fully expect to recover what they’ve taken from me fully, at some point, once we get through this immediate process.
Part 5: “This is an apocalyptic catastrophe… a humanitarian nightmare”
Palast: I went to Ecuador and met with Chief Emergildo Criollo of the Cofan indigenous tribe, whose 3-year old son went swimming in polluted water, and came up vomiting blood and died. His older son died of leukemia. What did you see yourself when you first went down to Ecuador?
Donziger: Look, I went down there expecting to see pollution. I was shocked at the level of the pollution. It was like an apocalyptic nightmare. I mean, I went into this jungle, the Amazon rainforest that I’d heard so much about, and there were literally lakes, Olympic pool sized lakes of oil on the ground. There were open air, unlined, toxic waste pits, to which Texaco had attached pipes, and they were running the toxic oil waste, which has benzene and other chemicals that cause cancer into the rivers and streams that the indigenous groups were drinking out of. That was where they were getting their drinking water, where they were bathing, getting their fish from. It was clear on that first trip, and the first day down there, that this was going to kill a lot of people.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that if you ingest oil, or its waste, you are ultimately going to be contaminated with chemicals that cause cancer, okay. This was a ticking time bomb from the moment I saw it. And it’s turned out to be true. I mean, the limited studies that have taken place, have proven that hundreds, if not thousands of people, have died of pollution, in Ecuador, caused by Chevron. Mostly indigenous peoples, also farmers.
This is an apocalyptic catastrophe. It’s a humanitarian nightmare. And a lot of people, who think big thoughts about the law, call it ecocide. Meaning it’s a deliberate attempt by a private company to undermine, really, the means that sustain human life, such that people just die because of the destruction of the environment. And I think this is the very definition of ecocide. I mean, if you’re an American company, and you decide to dump toxic waste out of greed, to sort of save two or three bucks a barrel of oil, knowing that what you’re dumping, if ingested, kills people, then you’re complicit in killing people.
That’s exactly what happened down in Ecuador and the responsible party, is Texaco, now Chevron. It’s also ironic, Greg, isn’t it? That that’s what they did. They have obtained effective impunity. The people who made those decisions, where are they? Have they been charged with a crime? No. Have they been sued personally? No. In the meantime, the guy who helped the people who were victimized by that, go into court and hold them accountable, is now facing six months in jail after spending two years in house arrest, for not turning over his computer to Chevron, based on an illegal order. Computer / information versus killing thousands of people, because of toxic dumping. And I’m the one facing jail?!?
Part 6: “I think about Rosa [Moreno] all the time”
Palast: Name some of the people that you remember… the victims that moved you.
Donziger: There’s one person in particular who moved me greatly, a woman named Rosa Moreno, who was a nurse in the town of San Carlos. She and I were the same age. I met her at the very beginning of my journeys down there. I’ve been there over 250 times, over a 20 year period. And Rosa was, sort of, holding the front lines on the medical side, against all the little children and adults who were getting cancer in her community. [San Carlos was “Ground Zero” in the legal batter against Chevron.] Two-thousand people lived in this area and there were dozens of toxic waste pits.
Rosa, in 2015, came down with cancer herself, after caring for so many people who had cancer. And ultimately succumbed in late 2016. She took a trip to the US a couple of times to confront Chevron’s CEO at the shareholders’ meeting. Every year representatives of the community would come up. She came up. I remember the trial going to her town for a judicial inspection in San Carlos. I remember the day. I can still picture her that day, so happy. Like, finally, there was a measure of accountability being imposed on Chevron for what they did, just by virtue of the fact they were on trial, you know?
So, when Rosa passed, not only did I lose someone I was extremely fond of, I would say a friend, the case lost a leader. And the people of her town lost the only person who was able to deliver medical services, as limited as they were, ‘cause she was a nurse, there was no doctor. I think about Rosa all the time.
Part 7: “There’s a level of punitive retaliation taking place against me”
Donziger: One of the most painful things is, because of this, I haven’t been able to travel to Ecuador for two and a half years. In addition to the ankle bracelet, they confiscated my passport. So, even if they give me my freedom back, I still need my passport to be able to travel. I don’t have my passport.
So Judge Kaplan, based on Chevron’s push, has denied my right to travel to Ecuador. Denied my right to travel any other country, including enforcement jurisdictions, like Canada, who are enforcing the judgment. I can’t meet or talk to lawyers, with whom I work. He put a bond on me of $800,000 for a misdemeanor. By the way, that’s higher than the bond for three of the four police officers who killed George Floyd — and they killed George Floyd. They have a lower bond than Steven Donziger, who’s charged with a misdemeanor, and has zero criminal record and never committed a violent act against anybody.
There’s a level of punitive retaliation taking place against me that is all out of proportion to the normal misdemeanor case that one sees in the United States of America. And it’s because Chevron’s running the case, they’re running my prosecution. And it’s very difficult for people who are fundamentally marginalized in the jungle, with very little money, who rely on outside advocates to make their voices heard in the world, to lose their main guy, their main lawyer. I mean, basically, in addition to depriving me of my liberty, Kaplan’s deprived the Ecuadorian communities of their choice of lawyer.
Part 8: “An attack on the very idea of human rights accountability”
Palast: Chevron’s attack on you through the court is as much an attack on the victims in Ecuador…
Donziger: I would argue Chevron’s attack against me is mostly an attack against the people of Ecuador, and more broadly an attack on the very idea of human rights accountability. That’s what it is.
I’m in the middle, ‘cause I’m here and I’ve become a symbol of something. But let’s not get too personal about it. Yes, Chevron doesn’t like me. I get it. But that’s not why they’re attacking me. They’re attacking me because the symbol of me makes it convenient and useful for them to attack me.
And that symbol is [that] against all odds, marginalized communities can connect with lawyers, raise money, and hold a major corporation accountable for massive pollution. Okay. That’s the symbol of me. And they want to destroy me to convince people that you can’t do that work successfully, like we have done, ever again.
So, they’re investing major sums of money, with dozens of law firms, 2,000 lawyers, to knock us out. They want every lawyer down the road, every lawyer in law school now at Pace and Harvard and Yale, who studies environmental law and wants to do environmental justice, they want them to think of Steve Donziger before they decide to file a case.
In a weird way, the attention the case is getting, the publicity, Chevron is sort of trying to get on that platform with me, and attack me. So, all the people who are fascinated by this story, also get intimidated by understanding what’s happening to Steve Donziger.
Part 9: “This is dangerous. I think it goes well beyond me.”
Donziger: The types of things that are happening to me, are the types of things you don’t normally associate with a rule of law country, or the United States of America, our legal systems.
I think this is dangerous. I think it goes well beyond me. And I think the trend you’re seeing in a lot of liberal democracies, or formerly liberal democracies in the world, countries like Hungary and Poland and Russia, China — not that they’re formerly [liberal democracies], but they’re authoritarian countries — to really manufacture criminal cases against your political opponents, to neutralize them and destroy them, so they can no longer be a threat, you’re seeing that in the United States. I mean, this is what’s happened to me.
Part 10: “It’s really hard to get a fair hearing on human rights claims”
Palast: Tell us about the judges.
Donziger: Well, there’s two main judges…Loretta Preska, who’s a leader of the Federalist Society which Chevron funds, and Lewis Kaplan, who’s a former tobacco industry lawyer. They’ve been on the bench for over 25 years each. Kaplan, was appointed by Clinton, and Preska was appointed by George Bush — the first George Bush. I don’t want to get too caught up in are they Trump judges? The fact is, almost all federal judges in the United States, even those appointed by Obama, are pro-corporate, appointed by Clinton, they’re pro-corporate.
It’s really hard to get a human rights lawyer as a judge on the federal bench. Or a criminal defense lawyer, or a civil rights lawyer. It’s almost all ex-prosecutors or ex-corporate lawyers. So, it’s really hard to get a fair hearing on human rights claims in the United States right now.
Part 11: “They keep thinking they can outlast us.”
Donziger: This is a long-term battle. And if you have a short-term perspective, you’re never going to get anywhere, because Chevron has a long-term vision for these kinds of cases. They think they can outlast our team. They think they can an outlast human rights lawyers. And they can outlast us from a financial standpoint, or from an institutional standpoint.
‘Cause on the plaintiff’s side, my side, these cases are largely driven by individuals. On their side, they have corporate institutions behind them….So, I’ve been through, since the case started, twelve presidents in Ecuador, and four CEOs at Chevron… I’m still here. That’s unusual.
But they’re a strong institution, with a lot of money, and they just keep hiring lawyers to keep perpetuating their strategy. And they keep thinking they can outlast us, or crush us. Or we’ll get impatient, and we’ll quit or we’ll walk away. Or we won’t have enough money. And that just never happens, because there’s too many people who are too committed to justice in this case.
Part 12: “I am the victim of corporate abuse”
Donziger: Chevron and Judge Kaplan have scared off a lot of lawyers from this case. That again, is part of the intimidation model they’re using against me, to weaponize it so other people watch it, like it’s a show, and decide not to do this work, because they don’t want to take the same risk that I’ve taken. They don’t want to be in jail. They don’t want to be locked up. They don’t want to have websites financed by their adversary to smear their reputation. They don’t want to come home and explain to their children why they’re in the news in a negative way.
There are all these ploys, these tricks that are part of the demonization strategy, the criminalization strategy that Chevron uses, and their PR firms and their lawyers, that are designed to humiliate a person, smear their reputation, psychologically destabilizing them, freak out their family members, so the family members are like, daddy, daddy, please don’t do that anymore. Or their spouse says, you know, I’m not going to be able to put up with this anymore… the other mothers at school are looking at me funny now..
Those are all the things that happen when you get attacked the way I’ve been attacked. It takes a lot of strength, both by me and my family, to understand that that’s a game designed to freak us out. And, as a result, not get freaked out, maintain your steady course, and openly focus on the work, and understand that you’re never going to control the narrative completely. They have too much money for that. They have too many sympathizers in the corporate media for that.
But what you can do is get your truth out, get your story out, get your narrative out. So, at a minimum, your narrative is viable in the world. And people are like, what did Steve Donziger do? Oh, this is what he says he did. Now. Chevron says that, but, you know, at least you’re out there.
And I think what’s happened over the last four or five years, especially since they locked me up, is people are buying into the truth, buying into what really happened, which is that I am the victim of corporate abuse. Chevron committed fraud trying to nail me in the racketeering case. And the most important thing is that Chevron dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste in Ecuador, as found by six different appellate courts in Ecuador and Canada. That’s the story. And people understand now that that’s the story. And that’s really bad for Chevron, and it’s really good for the people of Ecuador.
Part 13: “They just dumped this scalding hot poison into rivers”
Donziger: They dumped millions and millions of gallons of oil directly from pipeline spills. And then, aside from that, they took what’s called wastewater, which is what comes out of the ground with the oil and has to be separated out. You can’t use it. You have to separate the marketable crude from the wastewater. And that’s full of benzene and other cancer causing substances.
They just dumped this scalding hot poison into rivers and streams that people relied on for their drinking water. And that was 16 billion gallons, by their own admission, over 25 year period. At the height of this dumping, they were dumping 4 million gallons a day, of this poisonous wastewater into rivers and streams that Chief Criollo and his people, and the other four indigenous groups in the area, were drinking, as their drinking water source…
It’s not like people have faucets like we understand, our lifestyles say here in the United States. They don’t have faucets, and they don’t have money to buy bottled water. They have, for thousands of years, been able to drink the beautiful, sweet, Agua Dulce, they call it, out of the rivers of the forest. And in a few short years that became contaminated with oil and oil waste, because Texaco decided to play God and dump as a way to save money, knowing people would drink this stuff and be exposed to cancer causing substances — and ultimately many of them would die.
Can you imagine being a corporate executive, making that decision, up here in New York — that’s where Texaco’s headquarters were at the time — affecting thousands of indigenous people in the Amazon? And then you’re not even held accountable. Or I should say, when you are held accountable, which our case did to some degree, instead of paying the people they hurt, instead of complying with the court judgment, they spend massive sums of money on lawyers to attack the lawyers who held them accountable.
It’s not like people have faucets like we understand, our lifestyles say here in the United States.
Part 14: “The reason I’m being attacked is because we won”
Palast: What would you say to young law students who are thinking of doing human rights work?
Donziger: I’d say, first of all, we won the case. And the reason I’m being attacked is because we won. In an odd way, if you look at it from the right perspective, you understand that it’s a good thing you’re being attacked. In the sense that they’re so freaked out by the risks they face, because of our case, they have to spend all this money to go after people who held them accountable.
Now, if people don’t want to bear that risk, maybe you should go into another line of work. But I also tell students, I speak to a lot of law students, it’s possible to do environmental justice work without getting sued. This is an unusual outlier case, because the amount of money at stake is so big. And because we actually got a judgment.
You’d be hard pressed to find one other case in world history where there’s an environmental judgment of this size, much less in a case brought by indigenous groups from the Amazon, working with a team of international lawyers.
This is very unusual, this situation, this type of case. Which, again, is why I think Chevron is trying to destroy it. They don’t want the model to exist. Because they’re worried if there were more such cases, they actually would pay, a huge liability, maybe in the hundreds of millions, if not trillions of dollars. Because they do this in a lot of countries, meaning the pollution.
So, I try to encourage students to just keep the proper perspective. If you get into this work, make sure you’re properly resourced. Make sure you have a team, a good multidisciplinary team, to do the work. And, you know, go for it. I mean, most judges would not do what Kaplan and Preska have done. You can actually get these cases litigated.
Part 15: “I’m blessed to have so much support”
Palast: You’ve got this electronic imprisonment, you may actually go to the federal pen, you’ve been disbarred and financially penalized, but, frankly, you seem like a very happy guy — explain that?
Donziger: Well, I’m happy in the sense that I’m blessed to have so much support, friends, family, love. And I’m at peace with my work. You know, some people look at me and they say, wow, that must be a really bad life, being on house arrest. I don’t like it, but I prefer to look at me and say, wow, we must have done something really dangerous to the fossil fuel industry for them to do this to me. And I take pride in that, and I derive satisfaction from that. And that combined with knowing the truth, and knowing where I think this is heading, ultimately, I’m at peace.
If I go to prison tomorrow, I’m going to go into prison a free man. And while I’m in prison, I’m going to be a free man, meaning, I’m going to be at peace with myself. And I’m going to have freedom in my head, and I’m going to be able to derive satisfaction from our accomplishments. And, ultimately, I’ll get out and continue the work. There’s a lot to look forward to, because there’s a lot of work to do in the human rights world, and in the climate justice world, so, I feel okay, you know, I feel okay.
There’s a friend of mine, a Harvard Law School classmate, who’s a human rights lawyer, and she told me a few weeks ago, she said, “Steven, they hate that you smile. Until you stop smiling, they’re going to keep attacking you.” And I can’t help but keep smiling, because I’m honestly in awe of what the indigenous peoples of Ecuador, and the farmer communities who brought this case, have accomplished. I can’t believe it.
When I started in 1993, I had no idea that it would grow into this. I mean, it was just a simple case. And they have thrown so much at those people. I mean, I’m suffering here, but I mean, the people who get poisoned every day, and can’t afford bottled water, or have no faucets, and their water sources are all contaminated, and many have died, that’s a much higher level of suffering than when I’m enduring. I’m amazed at their tenacity, their determination, their cohesion, the level of community organizing at the grassroots level, the leadership.
I’ve learned so much. I went down to Ecuador as a young Harvard Law grad thinking I could teach those people how to fight back, and I ended up learning, actually, more lessons from them about how to live life, and about how to understand wisdom, than they ever learned from me. I mean, yeah, I know a little bit more about the law. They know a lot more about life, and about what drives the natural world, and about how we need to function to survive as a species, and as a planet.
It’s been an extraordinarily enriching personal experience to go through this. And I’m blessed, and that’s why I’m happy. How fucking crazy is that, when you think about it? You know what I mean? I mean, just…you need to stop smiling.
Part 16: “This is a horrendous crime”
Donziger: There’s a lot of other people besides Rosa [Moreno, who’ve died]. Alejandro Soto was a good friend of mine, he just died of cancer two years ago. He was a major leader of the FDA [Coalition of Affected Peoples], which was the group that brought the lawsuit. There’s been witnesses in the trial who’ve died of cancer. It’s rampant, it’s rampant.
People, literally, are so impoverished, they’re building their houses next to waste pits, because that’s the only land they can find, or they think they were cleaned up. Because Texaco created this fiction that it actually cleaned up some of the pits. So, people down there think, oh, it’s clean, we can go live near the pit. And they’ve never cleaned the pit. They just put dirt over the toxic waste without cleaning it out. And then, over time, it bubbled up… They’d build water wells right there, next to these contaminated pits, and they’d end up drinking contaminated water and they’d die of cancer.
That was another thing about it. Not only did they commit the crime of building these pits, and then running the toxic waste into the rivers and streams. They never warned the people. I mean, if you’re a company creating a hazardous waste site, you need to at least put up a fence around it, and a sign that says “Hazardous Waste”. They never even put up fences. Animals, cattle, horses, chickens, all sorts of animals would go into these waste pits and they’d get stuck in the muck, the oil muck, and asphyxiate and die. Not to mention, people would build water wells near the waste pits, not understanding that they were leaching into the groundwater, that was feeding the water well that they were drinking.
So, this is a horrendous crime. You don’t do that, first of all. But, if you do it, you don’t do it without warning people about the health impacts, the impacts of poison on their body, so they can take precautions to protect themselves — and that never happened either.
Part 17: “It is an outrage that they destroyed documents”
Palast: I’m one of the only journalists that actually got to speak to Chevron’s lawyers in Ecuador, and they say that no one’s ever proved that crude oil causes cancer and you can’t prove it’s our crude oil anyway.
Donziger: Well, first of all, on the first point they’re just wrong. There’s massive scientific literature that proves that oil causes cancer, if you ingest it at high enough levels, or breathe the vapors, what have you. For their argument that we can’t prove it’s theirs, I mean, that’s preposterous. We proved it’s theirs. We got records to show that these were their wells. No one else operated there. We went there, we took soil samples. There was massive contamination. It was Texaco’s contamination.
Now, they think we’re so stupid that when you pull the oil out of the ground, they think they can say, well, you can’t really prove that it’s ours. I mean, who knows? Well, we proved it was theirs. I mean, what? Is it supposed to have the Texaco logo on the oil you pull out of the ground?
Their arguments were preposterous and they were appropriately rejected by the court. We proved our case more than enough. We proved it with their evidence, we proved it with our evidence, we proved it with third party evidence. We proved it with 64,000 chemical sampling results, 105 expert evidentiary reports. We over proved our case with voluminous scientific evidence, and that’s why it’s been affirmed by six different appellate courts and 28 appellate judges.
Palast: I found a document that’s from the president of Texaco — or as they said, el presidente de la junta de Texcao, the president of Texaco — in Spanish and English, saying, take the documents showing we’ve dumped sludge and “remove” and “destroy” them. Isn’t that obstruction of justice?
Donziger: Yeah. But…
Palast: So how come you’re wearing the prison bracelet and they’re not?
Donziger: That’s the question that people need to ask. The judicial system here is designed, generally, to protect wealth and power, and I think that’s what it’s doing in this instance. It doesn’t mean that at times individuals or entities, who are weaker, can’t win cases. You can. This isn’t a fixed system. But as a general matter, structurally, it’s designed to make it much, much harder for the little guy, much easier for the Chevrons of the world. And that’s what’s happening in this case, combined with a good dose of open abuse by two judges, you know? So, it is an outrage that they destroyed documents in Ecuador, and I’m wearing an ankle bracelet.
Part 18: “They needed a way to undermine the Ecuador judgment”
Palast: I haven’t seen in the US press mention of this documentation, that [Chevron] destroyed documents, evidence in the case. But, you do get in the US press that a judge in the Ecuador case testified that you offered a bribe to him. Could you explain that? This accusation of attempted bribery?
Donziger: Well, there was no bribe. There was no attempted bribe. This is a story he made up to get paid by Chevron millions and millions of dollars to come up here and testify against me. They prepped him 53 days before he testified. So, it’s a lie. He later admitted lying in a separate proceeding. And a forensic examination of the trial judge’s computer in Ecuador proved that he wrote the judgment, not this other guy that he claimed we had paid to write the judgment.
It’s all just made up. And it was made up by Chevron’s lawyers at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher ’cause they needed a really spectacular way to undermine the Ecuador judgment, after we had won the case, after an eight year trial in the jurisdiction where they wanted the trial held.
They just made up evidence, and to this day, I still get asked about it, I still have to answer it, it still sucks air out of the room, because it is spectacular. And it makes people question the whole case down in Ecuador, which is what their objective was. So, it’s unfortunate, but I’ll remind people that 28 different appellate judges in Ecuador and Canada have looked at that evidence and rejected it, and there’s only one judge in the world who’s accepted it, and that’s the trial judge here in Manhattan, Lewis Kaplan, who’s locked me up.
Part 19: “The United Nations just ruled my entire detention is illegal”
Palast: The corporate media paint you as a criminal. What do you, think’s going on here? Why do you think the press is so hostile towards you?
Donziger: The corporate media has a hard time explaining how a guy like me can be abused by two US federal judges. It just doesn’t add up in the framework with which they look at the world. They also are heavily dependent on advertising money from the fossil fuel industry, including from Chevron. And in the case of the New York Times, their main law firm representing the whole institution on First Amendment issues is none other than Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which is Chevron’s law firm that’s been attacking me for 10 years.
There’s a total conflict of interest and they just refuse to cover the story. I mean, do you think there’s a story in the New York Times, or any major US network, on the fact that the United Nations just ruled my entire detention is illegal and the US government must release me and pay me reparations? There’s not a single story. Five esteemed international jurists, including the former President of Chile, just ruled that my detention is illegal, and Judges Preska and Kaplan are violating international law in multiple ways in my case. Silence from the New York Times. Nothing.
Part 20: “Biden’s Justice Department has fallen down on this issue”
Palast: The United Nations told the US government and the courts to release you and pay compensation for what they’ve done. Where is the Biden Justice Department?
Donziger: Biden’s Justice Department has fallen down on this issue, in my opinion. I mean, we’ve asked them to intervene, to take back this private corporate prosecution and then dismiss the charges. Why would Merrick Garland, the US Attorney General, ever put up with a situation, where a human rights lawyer is locked up in his own country, being prosecuted by a private corporation? Like, doesn’t that get you somewhere?
If you are Attorney General, your responsibility is to protect the law, the rule of law. That’s a violation of the rule of law. Do something. You can do something. We’ve asked him multiple times, he has never responded. And Joe Biden is the same problem.
If Joe Biden’s going to be serious about the climate issue, he’s got to make sure that no human rights lawyers, who are frontline defenders of the earth, like I am, are locked up in corporate criminal prosecutions in his own country. But he’s just letting it happen. Now, granted, he’s busy with a lot of things. Okay. But there’s plenty of resources in the executive branch of the US government to deal with this too.
I think that the DOJ needs to step in and take back the private prosecution from the Chevron law firm, prosecute me directly, if you want to, or dismiss the charges. I need to have a professional prosecutor, not a private Chevron prosecutor.
Part 21: “It’s a victory for the people of Ecuador”
Palast: The Chevron prosecutor, I understand, has also billed the United States taxpayer over a quarter million dollars to prosecute Steven Donziger…
Donziger: On a misdemeanor. But it’s actually higher than that. We estimate it’s a million dollars. She hasn’t disclosed her bills for a long time.
Palast: A million dollars to prosecute…?
Donziger: A million dollars to prosecute a misdemeanor.
Palast: How much has Chevron spent to prosecute you?
Donziger: By their own admission, one and a half billion. But, I think it’s actually much higher. Because the way we calculate 60 law firms, 2,000 lawyers over all the years they’ve been doing this, it’s at least $3 billion.
Donziger: It’s probably the most expensive corporate defense in history. And it’s a victory for the people of Ecuador. I mean, the fact that Chevron has had to spend $3 billion dealing with this problem, even though, admittedly, it hasn’t gone to cleaning it up. But, clearly they’re freaked out by it, if they’re spending that kind of money. That means that’s $3 million they can’t spend on taking oil out of the ground and making the world a dirtier place… It’s painful to have to spend $3 billion on a litigation. It’s painful.
Palast: Why haven’t they spent $3 billion on just cleaning it up?
Donziger: That’s accountability, at some level. Like, the fact you have to spend that much money on lawyers, imposes pain, which equals accountability. Of course they should have spent that cleaning it up. But they kept thinking if we just spent a hundred million on lawyers, they’ll go away. Let’s spend another hundred, and now we’ll go to 500, and we never went away. And they were in so deep, they kept spending money on lawyers, and they’re still spending massive sums on lawyers. They really need to recognize the reality that we’re not going away. Nor is the risk of this judgment. They really need to settle the case.
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Greg Palast (Rolling Stone, Guardian, BBC) is the author of The New York Times bestsellers, Billionaires & Ballot Bandits and the book and documentary,
The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.
His latest film is Vigilante: Georgia's Vote Suppression Hitman
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