From 1964 to 1990, Chevron intentionally polluted the rainforest to save money. Contamination tests revealed dangerous levels of toxins. In February an Ecuadoran court, where Chevron insisted the case be heard, found the company liable for $9.5 billion in cleanup costs.
Chevron cried fraud and fought back -- not by arguing the merits of their conduct in the Amazon, but by accusing the Ecuadorians and their American lawyers, consultants and supporters of violating the RICO Act, normally used to indict mobsters. The judgment should be unenforceable, Chevron argues, because our activities (including our press and advocacy strategy) amount to “shaking down,” “conspiring,” and “extorting” the petroleum behemoth.
I admit we have not been kind to Chevron. We have told our story largely through the news media, including a devastating “60 Minutes” segment. We have written hundreds of critical press releases and blogs. We met with Members of Congress to mitigate Chevron’s lobbying to end U.S. trade preferences with Ecuador, which the company sought in retaliation for our lawsuit. We complained to Attorneys Generals about Chevron’s withholding information to shareholders about potential liabilities. And we alerted Ecuadorian officials to Chevron’s fraudulent cleanup and urged an investigation.
Fairly basic tactics for public advocacy campaigns. Hardly ripped from the pages of the Godfather series.
But, with tactics that would make a tobacco company blush, Chevron has convinced U.S. Federal Judge Lewis Kaplan that we may have done something illegal. In response, Judge Kaplan has enjoined us, including the Ecuadorian plaintiffs, from enforcing the judgment until he figures out whether we are extortionists or just mere flaks and tree huggers. (Why Judge Kaplan would think he has jurisdiction over people living 3,000 miles away in the rainforest is a topic for another piece.) Under his order, I cannot say or do anything that would assist in the enforcement of the judgment – which might include writing this Op Ed. This is what Judge Kaplan had to say about our “nefarious” activity:
“[They have been] seeking political support of the president of Ecuador, among others; procuring favorable media coverage in the United States and elsewhere; and promoting critical attention to Chevron by U.S. and New York State public officials, all for the purpose of pressuring Chevron to pay a settlement.”
Guilty. I confess. I’m a co-conspirator and proud of it. I'll continue to help the Ecuadorians tell their story with the hope my efforts will outmaneuver Chevron's legions of lobbyists and public relations firms and blunt the millions the company spends on its feel-good ad campaign, promising to “support the communities” where Chevron drills. I also hope my efforts will lead to a damage award or a settlement large enough to cleanup the contamination.
The chilling message of Judge Kaplan’s ruling should make many professionals think twice about taking on powerful interests. Public relations executives representing corporations on either side of litigation could be accused of conspiring to drive down stock prices. Lobbyists could be named as racketeers seeking to put a competitor out of business. Issue a
critical press release or meet with a public official, and accusations will fly about extorting and shaking down profitable companies.
A Chevron lobbyist once remarked about the lawsuit: “We can’t let little countries screw around with big companies like this – companies that have made big investments around the world.”
Hopefully, Chevron's attempt to criminalize public interest advocacy will be thwarted on appeal and "little countries" and their people will have the chance to hold corporations accountable for improper conduct. Meanwhile, if you are in the advocacy field, think twice before you hit the send button on that next blog or press release -- or be prepared to join me in the co-conspirator's club.
Karen Hinton owns Hinton Communications and lives in Great Falls, Virginia.