Energy & Environment

House progressives urge Garland to intervene in ex-environmental lawyer Steven Donziger's case

Nine House Democrats on Tuesday called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to intervene in the case of a former environmental lawyer who has alleged his prison sentence is in retaliation for his work against Chevron.

The lawmakers sent the letter ahead of Steven Donziger's appeal of his six-month sentence on contempt charges. The letter notes President Biden's assertions of U.S. leadership on climate at the COP26 summit in November, saying "the entire world is watching whether our actions will match our words."

"That an internationally respected human rights lawyer sits in prison right now while Chevron avoids billions in judgments for intentionally destroying the rainforest is an outrage that highlights just how critical our fight against corporate greed is to our future," Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who co-led the letter, said in a statement.

"Chevron is setting a dangerous precedent that other corporate polluters will follow to avoid responsibility for the devastation they cause, and the DOJ should intervene immediately to rectify this situation or risk endorsing it as a blueprint for turning victims and their lawyers into criminals," Tlaib added.

In addition to Tlaib, the letter is signed by Democratic Reps. Chuy Garcia (Ill.), Cori Bush (Mo.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Barbara Lee (Calif.) and Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.).

Donziger sued Texaco in the 1990s on behalf of indigenous Ecuadorians and farmers and secured an $8.5 billion judgment in 2011 in an Ecuador court. That year, Chevron, which acquired Texaco in 2001, countersued Donziger, alleging he secured the judgment through bribery and evidence tampering.

A federal judge overturned the award and charged Donziger with contempt, after which he was placed under house arrest for over two years. U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska sentenced Donziger to six months in October.

Donziger's prosecution has also attracted international condemnation, including from the United Nations' Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which noted Donziger has already been under arrest for longer than the maximum sentence for the charges. Critics have also noted that Judge Lewis Kaplan took the unusual step of appointing private attorneys to prosecute the charges after federal prosecutors declined.

Tlaib also grilled Chevron CEO Michael Wirth about the Donziger case at a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing with energy CEOs. In April, she joined Ocasio-Cortez, Bowman and Bush, as well as Reps. James McGovern (D-Mass.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), in a letter calling on Garland to review the case.

The Hill has reached out to the Justice Department for comment.

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