Energy & Environment

Judge finds former environmental lawyer who won billions in Chevron case guilty of contempt

A federal judge on Monday found a former lawyer who secured a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron guilty on six misdemeanor criminal contempt charges, the culmination of a legal case that has drawn accusations of retaliation by the energy giant.

Steven Donziger in 1993 sued Texaco on behalf of a coalition of Ecuadorean farmers and Indigenous people who alleged its activities in the country led to environmental disaster. After Chevron bought Texaco in 2001, the litigation was moved to Ecuador, where a court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 2011.

The same year, Chevron countersued Donziger, accusing him of doctoring evidence in the case and bribing a judge. After Judge Lewis Kaplan ruled in favor of the company, Donziger appealed, and incurred the contempt charges during the appeals process. He has been under house arrest in relation to the contempt charges for nearly two years.

After federal prosecutors with the Southern District of New York declined to prosecute Donziger on the contempt charges, Kaplan took the atypical step of appointing private attorneys to prosecute. Donziger was disbarred in New York in 2018.

In her ruling on Monday, District Judge Loretta Preska said the case was "wholly unconcerned" with Chevron's guilt in the Ecuador case.

"The Court does not question the sincerity of Mr. Donziger's espousal of his clients' cause," she wrote. "Nor does it quarrel with the sincerity of his belief that he has been treated unfairly by Chevron. 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.' By repeatedly and willfully defying Judge Kaplan's orders, that is precisely what Mr. Donziger did. It's time to pay the piper."

Donziger blasted the decision in a statement of his own Monday, calling it "the latest attempt by Chevron and its judicial allies to criminalize me and to send a message of intimidation to legitimate human rights lawyers who successfully challenge the major polluters of the fossil fuel industry."

"The decision marks a sad day for the rule of law, for our democracy, and for our planet. 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," he added. Donziger called the ruling a miscarriage of justice and vowed to appeal on Twitter.

In his statement, Donziger noted the law firm Kaplan assigned to the case, Seward & Kissel, has previously been retained by Chevron. Preska has ruled the $30,000 Chevron paid the firm was not a large enough amount to constitute a conflict of interest.

The charges in the case carry a sentence of up to six months in prison.