Lawyer who fought Chevron gets 6-month sentence for contempt

Jewish Steven Donziger, under house arrest for the past 2 years, faces prison for violating federal judge’s orders related to his battle against the energy giant

Steven Donziger in 2018 (video screenshot)
Steven Donziger in 2018 (video screenshot)

NEW YORK — An environmental lawyer who waged a decades-long campaign to hold Chevron accountable for oil pollution in the rainforests of Ecuador was sentenced Friday to six months in jail for violating a federal judge’s orders related to his fight against the energy giant.

US District Judge Loretta A. Preska, who decided the sentence after a criminal contempt trial earlier this year in New York, said Steven Donziger’s commitment to his Ecuadorian clients and their cause did not justify his defiance of court orders.

“Mr. Donziger’s offenses are extremely serious,” Preska said during the sentencing hearing in Manhattan federal court. “Given Mr. Donziger’s repeated, willful refusal to obey court orders, it seems that only the proverbial 2-by-4 between the eyes will instill in him any respect for the law.”

The prison term, if it stands on a likely appeal, will be the culmination of a long downfall for the Jewish Donziger, who is viewed as a hero by some environmentalists for his work on behalf of the people of Ecuador.

He has already been under house arrest in New York for more than two years and been disbarred for his actions in the case. At Friday’s court hearing, he told the judge that he was innocent, and that he wasn’t sorry.

“I’ve been fighting through the law to help the people of Ecuador for almost 30 years,” he said. “For that reason, I cannot today express remorse for actions that I maintain are ethical and legal and that I am appealing.”

Judge Preska sentenced Donziger to the maximum amount under the charge for criminal contempt and refused to consider his more than two years of home confinement towards that sentence, finding that his home confinement did not constitute “detention” for purposes of punishment. This determination is contrary to international standards.

While he and his legal team are going to appeal the conviction and sentence to an appellate court, the judge did not afford him an opportunity to post bail pending a determination on that appeal, finding that he is even more of a flight risk now than before since he has been convicted and sentenced.

She did, however, continue his home confinement for one week to allow for his attorneys to seek an immediate appeal on decision regarding bail. Should the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decide to uphold that decision on bail, Donziger would likely be forced to abide by the judge’s order and turn himself in to be detained in a federal facility despite his ongoing appeal of the conviction and sentence.

Donziger and other attorneys sued Texaco in 1993 on behalf of 30,000 farmers and Indigenous people from Ecuador’s Amazon region over pollution and health impacts from oil production. Chevron became the defendant when it bought Texaco.

Laywer Steven Donziger, under house arrest in New York City, July 26, 2020. (Courtesy)

Chevron didn’t dispute that the pollution happened, but says Ecuador’s state oil company, Petroecuador, was primarily responsible for the damage and that Texaco was released from liability after a $40 million cleanup.

A court in Ecuador ordered Chevron to pay $9.5 billion, but that judgment was later invalidated in New York by US District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, who ruled in 2014 that it was obtained through fraud, bribery, witness tampering and other misconduct.

Kaplan also said Donziger was guilty of obstructing justice, in part on the testimony of a judge in Ecuador who said he was bribed.

Preska ruled in July that Donziger was guilty of criminal contempt of court for defying Kaplan’s orders in the case, including refusing to turn over documents and electronic devices that the court sought in order to determine whether he had been profiting from the judgment against Chevron, which he is barred from doing.

“Mr. Donziger’s conduct was a pattern of contumacious behavior that bore out over the better part of a decade,” Preska said. “In our system of laws, it was a most serious offense.”

Donziger argued that he delayed turning over the materials while appealing Kaplan’s orders, citing reasons including attorney-client confidentiality.

Donziger, 60, will remain on home confinement if his lawyers file a request within a week for an expedited appeal to stay out while he appeals his conviction.

Trudie Styler, co-founder of the Rainforest Foundation and wife of singer Sting, speaks to the press along with human rights lawyers Pablo Fajardo, center, and Steven Donziger at the Live Earth concert at Giants Stadium, July 7, 2007 in East Rutherford, NJ. The concert is part of a 24-hour series spanning 7 continents to raise awareness for global warming. (AP Photo/Tim Larsen)

Donziger asked to be released. He said his confinement has exacted a high cost on his wife and his son, who just started high school. He said his son “has suffered quietly for a good 15 percent of his life as a collateral consequence of my house arrest.”

He was disappointed by the sentence, defense lawyer Ron Kuby said after the hearing.

“But he’s been fighting this for 30 years” in many different courts, Kuby said, “and so he continues to fight.”

In court, Kuby asked Preska to view the proceedings “through eyes of Ecuadorian villagers” harmed by oil drilling, but Preska said the contempt case was not about pollution in Ecuador but “only about Mr. Donziger’s disobedience of Judge Kaplan’s orders.”

Rita Glavin, the special prosecutor for the case, said, “Mr. Donziger knew what he was doing every step of the way. His conduct was not appropriate, and it was certainly not ethical.”

A message seeking comment was sent to Chevron.

Meanwhile a United Nations body has said that the lengthy detention of Donziger “lacks legal basis and is therefore arbitrary.”

In a report released this month, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, established by the UN Commission on Human Rights, found a “staggering display of lack of objectivity and impartiality” on the part of Judge Kaplan.

“The charges against and detention of Mr. Donziger appear to be retaliation for his work as a legal representative of indigenous communities,” it states.

The group calls on the US government to mount a “full and independent investigation” of the circumstances surrounding the “arbitrary deprivation of liberty” of Donziger and to “take appropriate measures against those responsible for the violation of his rights.”

An official at Amnesty International, which brought the case to the UN group, told the Times of Israel that while the working group does not have local enforcement powers, “The opinions of the Working Group are authoritative decisions from a UN expert mechanism and do carry legal weight.”

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