Controversial activist Steve Donziger is a folk hero to the left, a fraud to Big Oil
Steven Donziger says he has no regrets amid a lengthy legal battle with Chevron that has won him support from Democrats in Congress who have pushed for his release from detention.
To supporters, Donziger is a folk hero who stood up to the power of oil companies in Latin America and has now suffered a personal cost.
To opponents — and in the eyes of the law, as it stands now — he’s a fraud who allegedly ghostwrote an Ecuadorian judge’s ruling ordering Chevron to pay $9.5 billion to farmers and Indigenous groups in the country. Donziger denies all allegations of fraud or misconduct in connection with the Ecuador case.
The vast majority of his detention — more than 800 days — has been pretrial house arrest, longer than the six-month maximum sentence he eventually received.
Donziger, who was released from house arrest in April, spoke to The Hill in November, one of several interviews he’s given since his release to tell his side of the story.
Donziger, who has a 16-year-old son, acknowledged it’s been a painful experience, given that he’s been deprived of three years of normal father-son activities they can never get back.
“Yeah, it hurt. It wasn’t fun in detention,” he said. “But we strengthened our hand considerably, and we now have a much bigger platform to achieve justice, not only for the people of Ecuador but for the climate. That’s a very long way of saying I would [take on Chevron] again if I had the opportunity.”
His detention drew criticism from the U.S. and abroad, with Amnesty International and members of the House Progressive Caucus calling on Attorney General Merrick Garland to intervene while he was still under house arrest, and the main United Nations human rights body calling the length of his house arrest illegal.
Chevron, however, maintains that his detention was the consequence of unethical and illegal tactics he used in the original Chevron suit, and its arguments have been backed up in court.
Theodore Boutrous, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, which represents Chevron, told The Hill that Donziger “is an adjudicated racketeer who has been disbarred.”
“The judgment Donziger procured in Ecuador has been found by U.S. federal courts to be the product of fraud and corruption, and has been rejected by other tribunals around the world,” Boutros told The Hill. “No court or tribunal anywhere has recognized it as legitimate.”
Donziger’s 30-year battle with the oil industry began in the early 1990s, when he visited Ecuador at the request of the Amazon Defense Coalition, an Ecuadorian nongovernmental organization, to investigate reports of environmental degradation by Texaco, which is now owned by Chevron.
Upon arrival, Donziger found what he called a “horrifying scene” in the rainforest.
“There were literally hundreds of pits of oil that were gouged out of the floor of the Amazon [and] pipes that were used to flow the contents into rivers and streams the local communities were relying on for their drinking water, to their bathing and for their fishing,” he said.
Chevron has blamed the degradation on Ecuador’s state oil company, saying in a statement “Texaco Petroleum … was a minority partner in an oil-production consortium in Ecuador along with the state-owned oil company, Petroecuador, from 1964 to 1992.”
Donziger and the rest of his legal team filed a class-action lawsuit in 1993 against Texaco on behalf of 30,000 farmers and Indigenous Ecuadorians. The company fought the case in Ecuadorian courts for years, continuing after it was acquired by Chevron in 2001. Ultimately, in 2011, a court ordered Chevron to pay $18 billion. The company appealed the case all the way to Ecuador’s highest court, which affirmed the judgment but cut the amount nearly in half to $9.5 billion.
After that result, however, Chevron began a decadelong second round of the battle, countersuing Donziger under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The countersuit played out in the U.S., where RICO has force of law and where Chevron alleged several of his violations of the racketeering law occurred.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, an appointee of former President Clinton, ruled in favor of Chevron and threw out the $9.5 billion judgment in 2014, ruling that Donziger fraudulently orchestrated the judgment in Ecuador, which he denies.
Chevron and other critics of Donziger have accused him of unethical tactics, including bribery and witness tampering, with The Wall Street Journal editorial page accusing him in 2019 of a “shakedown” of Chevron that “ranks among the biggest legal scams in history.”
Notre Dame law professor Douglass Cassel, who has himself been retained by Chevron, has called Donziger a “con man” whose conduct did a disservice to his clients. The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in 2018 that the $9.5 billion judgment should not be recognized or enforced, ruling that the judgment was “was procured through fraud, bribery and corruption.”
Donziger noted that the ruling against him was based in part on the testimony of Alberto Guerra, an Ecuadorian ex-judge who testified he accepted bribes in the case in exchange for allowing Donziger to ghostwrite a judgment against Chevron. However, in 2015, Guerra told an international arbitration tribunal he had lied under oath in his testimony.
Gibson Dunn, the law firm representing Chevron, disputed the claim that the judgment hinged on Guerra’s testimony.
“Donziger and his allies routinely both exaggerate Guerra’s importance and lie about his testimony—much of which was corroborated by documentary evidence,” a representative for the firm told The Hill. “Guerra’s testimony was hardly the only evidence that Donziger ghostwrote the Ecuadorian judgment.”
In 2018, Donziger was disbarred in New York and Washington, D.C., and Kaplan ordered him to turn over his electronic devices to Chevron forensics experts while he appealed Kaplan’s ruling.
When Donziger refused, citing attorney-client privilege, Kaplan charged him with criminal contempt of court. Gibson Dunn disputed Donziger’s claim that this was “unprecedented,” noting that Donziger was the defendant rather than an attorney in the case.
When federal prosecutors declined to take the contempt case, Kaplan appointed private lawyers from the firm of Seward & Kissel, which has represented Chevron as recently as 2018, to prosecute the case. Kaplan also directly appointed Senior District Judge Loretta Preska to hear the case rather than using random assignment.
Preska convicted Donziger on the contempt charges and sentenced him to six months last July. An appeals court upheld the conviction in a split decision this June, two months after his release. In September, he appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court, arguing a lack of supervision from Justice Department officers violated separation of powers. The federal government filed a brief in opposition to the pending appeal on Dec. 16.
“Ultimately, I spent 993 days in detention, 45 days of that in federal prison and the rest was at home, and I was released [in] April,” Donziger said.
Since the case began, and continuing after his release, Donziger has been hailed by many on the political and environmentalist left, including the House Progressive Caucus members who called attention to his detention.
“Progressive movements rightly saw [Donziger’s case] as an attempt to criminalize corporate accountability, and that hit a nerve. If he’s a principled lawyer taking on a powerful corporation and the justice system punishes him, that has a profound chilling effect,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who has been part of the progressive caucus push for Donziger’s release, told The Hill in a statement.
“We can’t become afraid of fighting for what’s right. Donziger’s work was important. I’m thankful he’s free now, but he shouldn’t have had to fight for that freedom.”
Although he’s out of detention now, Donziger expressed concern that he was a test case for what he called the corporate capture of American civil institutions by energy giants like Chevron, with a goal of silencing opposition.
“The industry’s figured out that if they can control the courts, or at least, influence them to a great degree, they can prevent themselves from being held accountable and obtain effective impunity for their misdeeds, for their wrongdoing, for their pollution [and] for the harm they cause,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use our courts, we must — there are ways to use them effectively in climate justice — but make no mistake about it, the U.S. federal courts right now are very hostile to climate cases” as a result of decades of Republican efforts to create an industry-friendly judiciary, he said.
A new generation of activists and commentators, like the hosts of the leftist comedy podcast Chapo Trap House and Amazon union organizer Chris Small, are among those who have brought attention to Donziger’s case.
“I think the younger generation has power in their hands to quickly change the equation, and I think that the mobilization of younger people around climate and other issues of democracy is vital,” Donziger said. “And I love that we’re seeing it happen to, you know, to a greater degree than it used to, and we saw this in the midterm elections,” which saw large turnout by many of the same younger voters who rank environmental issues and the climate a top issue.
Donziger said that the admiration he’s received from millennial and Generation Z figures in particular is mutual.
“My generation has failed to preserve the planet adequately, despite the great efforts of many, myself included,” he said, “and I think it’s great to see young people alive and awaken to what needs to be done.”