By Steven Mufson and Juan Forero
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Chevron has released videos it says implicate a judge in Ecuador and a senior official of the country's ruling party in a $3 million bribery scheme related to a lawsuit alleging that the U.S. oil company should be held liable for $27 billion in environmental damages in Ecuador's Amazon region.
The case has drawn attention because of the size of the claim against Chevron and the damage the proceedings could do to Ecuador's bid for most-favored-nation status if the oil giant convinces members of Congress and the Obama administration that the country's legal system lacks integrity.
Chevron said Monday that it had been given videos of three meetings, including one in which the judge, Juan Núñez, appears to say he will rule against Chevron, and that the company's appeals would be denied even though the trial is still in progress. The company posted the videos and transcripts in English and Spanish on its Web site.
In another, Patricio Garcia, who claims to be the political coordinator for the presidency and an official in Ecuador's ruling Alliance Country party, suggests that lawyers from the executive branch had been sent to help the judge write his decision. Garcia also asks two contractors seeking cleanup contracts to pay $3 million, which he says would be evenly divided between the judge, "the presidency," and the plaintiffs. And he implicates the sister of President Rafael Correa in the scheme.
Correa's administration issued a statement Monday night saying that a preliminary review found no "corrupt acts" on the part of the government. Still, the government said "this matter will be thoroughly, aggressively and fairly investigated."
Chevron is being sued by a group representing Amazon residents alleging that Texaco, which Chevron acquired in 2001, dumped toxic waste from oil drilling into open pits and waterways from 1972 to 1990.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the long-running case were caught off guard by the allegations Monday. Steven Donziger, a U.S. attorney for the plaintiffs, said there should be an investigation that not only looks into the conduct of the judge and the ruling party official but also into Chevron's conduct.
"I think this raises as many questions about Chevron as it does about the judge," he said. "I think this was a dirty-tricks operation by Chevron."
Chevron said it did not solicit the information. It said two people provided the videos. One, an Ecuadorian named Diego Borja, has worked for Chevron as a logistics contractor; the other, Wayne Hansen, is an American with no link to Chevron.
The company said the two men recorded the meetings without Chevron's knowledge and without remuneration. Chevron did say that because of concerns about Borja's safety, it paid to move him and his family out of Ecuador.
Charles James, executive vice president of Chevron, said the two were looking for water treatment contracts, but that the ruling party official had steered them toward environmental remediation contracts he said would result from Chevron losing its legal battle. Chevron said Borja and Hansen met with the judge twice, once in his chambers and once in a Quito Holiday Inn. The pair also met with the party official, Garcia, at the party's headquarters.
"The evidentiary phase of the case is still open," James said. "Yet the judge says the appeal is a formality." He added that "there's no way an impartial jurist could have participated in these meetings and retained any impartiality."
Donzinger, however, said it was not surprising that the judge, who has reviewed thousands of pages of documents, would have a strong view on the case.
Chevron has argued that Texaco had an agreement with the state oil company under which it paid $40 million toward environmental cleanup that ended in 1998 and that the state firm assumed responsibility for future costs.
Forero reported from Bogota, Colombia.