By Amanda Becker
Monday, November 29, 2010; 11
Patton Boggs's role as both law firm and lobby shop has been called into question as a possible conflict of interest by the firm's opposing counsel in a decades-long, multi-billion-dollar environmental lawsuit that pits Ecuadorian plaintiffs against Chevron.
The disagreement is the latest turn of events in a bitterly fought legal battle in Ecuador and the United States that has led to allegations of attorney misconduct on both sides. Experts say the recent conflict-of-interest assertion also highlights how the murky patchwork of state-level rules guiding the ethical responsibilities of lobbyists and lawyers who co-exist under the same shingle remains open to interpretation, despite recent attempts at clarification.
Just two days after Patton Boggs litigator James Tyrrell Jr. notified a Manhattan federal court earlier this month that he was stepping in to represent the Ecuadorian plaintiffs, Chevron's legal team at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher faxed Tyrrell a letter contending that the law firm's recent acquisition of the Breaux-Lott Leadership Group, which previously lobbied for the oil company, meant the firm had a conflict of interest and should remove itself from the case.
In an unusual move, Patton Boggs then asked a federal court in the District to declare the firm conflict-free before a formal legal attempt to disqualify the firm is made. The firm's Nov. 17 filing describes Gibson Dunn's letter as the latest in a series of "unmeritorious threats" designed to "ward off anyone who dares to provide aid to the Ecuadorian Plaintiffs" at a critical juncture in the case.
"Chevron leaves no stone unturned," Tyrrell said in an interview. "It became clear to me that if we did not withdraw they were likely to challenge the permissibility of our involvement. We felt the right thing to do was to act promptly."
Gibson Dunn's Randy M. Mastro did not respond to requests for comment on the conflicts issue; a Chevron spokesman called the entire lawsuit a fraud that has been corrupted by the plaintiffs' prior attorneys.
The prior relationship between Chevron and the Breaux-Lott Leadership Group is undisputed. Since the formation of the shop headed by former senators Trent Lott and John Breaux, the oil company has paid it $525,000 in 2008, $530,000 in 2009 and $265,000 in 2010 for federal lobbying work, according to Center for Responsive Politics data. Congressional lobbying records show that the relationship between the two entities ended just before Breaux-Lott was acquired by Patton Boggs in July of this year.
In asking the court to find that Breaux-Lott's history with Chevron does not pose a current conflict of interest, Patton Boggs describes the prior work as "not in any way legal in nature" and says that fact was "clearly communicated" to Chevron, arguing therefore no legal conflict can exist since the individuals in question were not covered by the professional guidelines to which attorneys must adhere.
Jackson & Campbell attorney Arthur D. Burger, who chairs the firm's professional responsibility practice, said that legal conflicts of interest are dictated by state-level guidelines modeled on but not identical to recommendations made by the American Bar Association. Here in the District, where Patton Boggs has made its claim, the nature of the work, the representation of the work to clients and whether the individuals in question are attorneys are all important factors in determining whether a conflict exists. As is timing. Even lawyer-lobbyists and non-lobbying attorneys can take on cases adverse to a former client's interests "so long as it's not substantially related to what you represented them on before," Burger said.
Tyrrell said Patton Boggs did everything it could to make sure Breaux-Lott's former Chevron work didn't impact the current case.
"While the Breaux-Lott Leadership Group did not perform legal services for Chevron, we nonetheless screened them from the lawyers working on these matters for the Ecuadorian plaintiffs," Tyrrell said.