Congressional Democrats are asking Attorney General Merrick Garland to intervene in a criminal case against a lawyer found to have falsified scientific evidence and bribed a foreign judge to shake down an oil company, with one member of "The Squad" heralding him as an inspiration for "others to fight back against corporate power."
Evidence indicates that Steven Donziger and his team ran an elaborate legal fraud that included secretly paying a Latin American court's independent expert to twist science about pollution and ultimately bribing a judge to issue a multi-billion dollar judgment in their favor.
Donziger has nonetheless found support from celebrities, media, and members of Congress, raising the question of whether Democrats support obstruction of justice and the falsification of science if it serves their agenda — or whether the mere invocation of ideological buzzwords is enough to distract an increasingly partisan America from bothering to sort out the facts.
The celebrities note that Donziger won a ruling against Chevron in court on the premise that it caused pollution in an area where indigenous people live, yet now finds himself on house arrest.
They gloss over what happened in between.
That judgment was awarded by a court in Ecuador in 2011. In 2014, a U.S. federal judge in New York found — and detailed in nearly 500 pages of specifics — that it was secured through lies and corruption so astonishing that they were like something "out of Hollywood."
In 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit unanimously upheld the U.S. ruling, saying the "record in the present case reveals a parade of corrupt actions" including "coercion, fraud and bribery" and that Donziger could not be allowed to profit off of fraud.
In 2018, an international tribunal at The Hague held that the judgment "was procured through fraud, bribery and corruption."
In 2020, a panel of New York judges unanimously ordered Donziger disbarred for "egregious professional misconduct" including "obstruction of justice, witness tampering, and judicial coercion."
Now facing criminal charges for contempt of court related to his refusal to turn over evidence, Donziger's strategy appears to be a plea for rank partisan loyalty. As his own former legal partners and employees have said he committed fraud, Donziger has seemed to try to convert questions about specific legal misconduct to a referendum on the social statuses of the players: If you think oil companies are bad, then you should support him.
Such emotional appeals and political influence campaigns don't typically work in a legal system less corrupt than Ecuador's. But Donziger seems to be calculating that that no longer describes ours.
On May 21, Trevor Noah's "Daily Show" ran a segment in which Donziger said, "I'm a human rights lawyer and I have a black ankle claw shackled to my leg courtesy of the United States criminal justice system because I helped, as a lawyer, win a very big pollution judgment against Chevron."
Correspondent Roy Wood said, "I'm surprised this is the first time I'm hearing about it."
That would be a surprising outcome indeed, if that were all there were to the story. And Wood didn't need to hear much to convince him it was: "At the end of the day, this case is about an oil company claiming they didn't pollute. What more do you need to know?" he said.
Donziger, who stood to gain at least $600 million from the scheme, once described his business as "The business of getting press coverage as part of a legal strategy… The business of plaintiffs' law. To make f***ing money."
The strategy of swapping a specific pattern of facts for a crude morality play, one that broadcast him as a member of an ideological tribe, seemed to pay off.
In April, six members of Congress, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), sent a letter to Garland asking for what seems like political interference in the judicial branch, saying the already extensively-litigated case "involved urgent environmental justice concerns of Indigenous people."
Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) said Donziger's "bravery and brilliance will inspire others to fight back against corporate power."
On May 26, actress Susan Sarandon said "the shared enemy is Climate Change and Pollution, not human rights lawyers, the afflicted peoples around the world, or their advocates."
It's not clear how familiar those advocates are with the evidence in the case. The following comes from the exhaustive 497-page assessment written by federal judge Lewis Kaplan in 2014.
From the 1960s to the 1990s, a subsidiary of Texaco was involved in drilling for oil in the Ecuadorian jungle. In the 1970s, an oil company owned by the government of that country took majority control of the consortium. In 1992, Texaco sold its remaining interests to the Ecuador-owned company, and in 1998, the country confirmed that Texaco had successfully performed agreed-upon environmental cleanup and released it from future claims. The Ecuadorian company continued to operate in the area.
Donziger had worked as a journalist in Latin America and attended Harvard Law School with the grandson of a former Ecuadorian president. Donziger said of Ecuadorian judges, "They're all corrupt… These judges are really not very bright."
In 2003, he filed a lawsuit in that country against Chevron, which had since bought Texaco, asking for money for environmental cleanup. "You can solve anything with politics as long as that judges are intelligent enough to understand the politics. They don't have to be intelligent enough to understand the law," he later said.
In 2011, the Ecuadorian judge, Nicolas Zambrano, ordered Chevron to pay $8.6 billion, which would double unless it issued an apology within 15 days.
Donziger and his team were purportedly representing a class of 30,000 indigenous residents. But they asked for any funds to go to a group that, as Kaplan later described, "Donziger and some of his Ecuadorian associates controlled."
Donziger stood to gain more than $600 million in fees, plus "control of or influence over the billions" that would go to the group that would oversee the cleanup fund.
Chevron did not pay, contending that the judgment was the result of foreign judicial corruption. The battle for the money wound up in the U.S. courts —where Judge Kaplan, who was appointed by the bench to Bill Clinton, found that Chevron was right.
In 2003, Donziger hired a scientist, David Russell, to provide evidence about environmental damage from oil companies in the area. Russell provided an early estimate of some $6 billion. But he had merely driven by some of the sites at 40 or 50 miles an hour and did not analyze any soil or water samples.
Russell described the figure as a "wild ass guess" and cautioned Donziger not to put too much stock in it. After Donziger ran with the figure, Russell cautioned that it was "wildly inaccurate and that it should not be used." Donziger's team refused to pay him and kept using the number.
Donziger hired a second scientific expert, Charles Calmbacher, who wrote another report, but Calmbacher later testified that he did not recognize what was ultimately submitted to the court in his name. Donziger's team had asked him to sign a blank page, and apparently put a fake report above his signature.
By 2004, the team took samples that indicated that the contamination appeared to be more recent – corresponding to drilling by Ecuador's nationally-owned gas company after Texaco had left the country. A researcher said Donziger asked him to stop the tests because they "would be counterproductive to the case." They switched to a less reliable measure which could not differentiate between newer and older damage and was more likely to give a false positive.
The Ecuadorian judge was facing unrelated sexual misconduct allegations, which Donziger sought to use to his advantage. He said, "We want to send a message to the court that, 'don't f**k with us anymore — not now and not — not later, and never." Donziger wrote in his journal that "The judge needs to fear us for this to move how it needs to move."
The judge appointed a scientific expert, Richard Cabrera, who would report directly to the court and be independent from either side. But Donziger's team set up a secret bank account to pay Cabrera.
Donziger's team communicated using code names, referring to the judge as the "puppet" or "cook" and the expert as the "waiter."
As part of his media strategy, Donziger recruited a film crew to make a documentary about his crusade, and outtakes from the film captured his interactions with Cabrera, which Donziger told the crew were "off the record."
In 2008, a report was submitted in Cabrera's name setting the damage at $16.3 billion. Donziger later admitted that a Denver-based firm he had hired, Stratus Consulting, wrote most of the report in the "independent" expert's name, at Donziger's direction. One of the lawyers on Donziger's team wrote in 2010 that "all of us, your attorneys, might go to jail."
A Philadelphia lawyer named Joseph Kohn had been funding the case, but Kohn eventually wrote that Donziger was pumping him for money to fund "extravagance" while refusing to "come clean" about what was really going on. "I now know that Mr. Donziger did not tell me the truth. It is now clear to me that Mr. Donziger deceived and defrauded me," he testified.
In 2011, Ecuadorian judge Zambrano issued his ruling ordering Chevron to pay. But portions of his 188-page ruling were identical to internal documents written by Donziger's team — documents that had not been made public or filed with the court. Some even contained the same typos.
Forced to answer in U.S. court for such issues, Zambrano claimed that he paid an 18-year old girl $15 a day to help him write it. The opinion cited legal authorities in multiple languages which neither the girl nor the judge spoke.
Emails showed that Donziger's team had appeared to assign an intern to work on "the judgement." Donziger later testified that it was "possible" a member of his team wrote a proposed judgment for the judge.
Another Ecuadorian judge who was previously assigned to the case, Alberto Guerra Bastidas, testified that Donziger's team promised to pay Zambrano $500,000 to throw the case. Bank records showed that Donziger's team had also paid Guerra.
Confronted with mounting evidence of fraud, Donziger told the U.S. court he couldn't remember basic details, answering "I don't know" or "I don't recall" to "nearly every substantive question posed to him."
Supporters of Donziger hold up signs at Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse in Manhattan on May 10, 2021. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Ideological tribalism over facts
Donziger has long been clear that his strategy was to use celebrities, environmental nonprofits, and the press to pressure Chevron into settling his lawsuit against it. "It is about brute force" rather than "all this bullshit about the law and facts," he told the documentary crew.
In an attempt to get Chevron to settle using media and political pressure, Donziger influenced then-New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and then-state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who oversaw the public employees retirement fund that held Chevron stock.
He convinced them to write to Chevron's CEO "repeating what they were told and doubtless believed – that an independent, court-appointed expert (Cabrera) had recommended billions in damages against Chevron. Comptroller DiNapoli repeatedly urged the company to settle. He even wrote a Huffington Post piece recounting his request that 'Chevron's board of directors settle this marathon litigation and spare the company's battered reputation any further damage,'" the U.S. judge recounted.
As it became clear that the case was not what it originally appeared to be, reputable environmental groups refused to adjust to the fact that someone operating under the banner of environmentalism might have been a bad actor seeking riches. Greenpeace said in conspiratorial tones that Donziger "appears to be a political prisoner of a private corporation bolstered by a cooperative federal judge."
Donziger, for his part, reportedly opposed a plan for Ecuador to clean up the pollution, apparently to preserve his big-dollar lawsuit.
Judge Kaplan documented that Donziger engaged in conduct indictable for money laundering, obstruction of justice, witness tampering, bribery, and extortion. Since findings came as part of the examination of the facts in a civil case, they were not criminal charges.
In 2019, Kaplan said that Donziger also allegedly committed criminal contempt of court after his ruling by refusing to turn over his computer and other evidence as well as his passport, and continuing to sell shares of the prospective Ecuadorian judgment. The Southern District of New York federal prosecutor's office declined to bring charges, saying it did not have the resources. Kaplan took the unusual step of appointing a private law firm to try him.
Federal judge Loretta Preska, who is presiding over that case, ruled that Donziger was a flight risk and ordered him held on home confinement in his New York City apartment. His trial took place last month, but a ruling has not yet been issued.
During the trial, his attorneys repeatedly focused on issues that Preska said were irrelevant to the charges at hand, admonishing , "This is not a press conference."
Donziger, who did not return a request for comment from The Daily Wire, has denied wrongdoing and leveled accusations at multiple U.S. judges. He has frequently said that he wants jury trials rather than trials before judges.
He declined to testify at trial but has continued to exert extrajudicial pressure by courting media coverage — though as what once seemed to be a major feat of environmental activism began looking more like a hoax, some major outlets like The New York Times, as Donziger noted , have gone silent.
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