Chevron Gadfly Donziger Faces Criminal Charges in N.Y. Trial

A disbarred lawyer who won a stunning, and ultimately thwarted, $8.6 billion judgment against Chevron Corp. over contamination of the Amazon rainforest went on trial Monday on criminal contempt charges -- even after prosecutors declined to pursue the case.

The former attorney, Steven Donziger, won the judgment against Chevron in 2011 from an Ecuadorian court on behalf of a group including indigenous people. Chevron, in turn, filed a civil racketeering lawsuit against Donziger in the U.S., alleging that he had obtained the judgment through fraud and bribery.

In 2014, a federal judge in Manhattan agreed, finding that he and others had conspired to fabricate evidence, and blocked him from enforcing the judgment and collecting more than $550 million in legal fees. Donziger denied the allegations.

Now Donziger, 59, is charged with defying court orders to turn over evidence in the racketeering lawsuit and to assign to Chevron his rights to the fees. He faces a sentence as long as six months in jail on the misdemeanor contempt charges, after spending the past 20 months under court-ordered home confinement while waiting for his trial. It was postponed several times by the pandemic and other issues.

Chevron Gadfly Donziger Faces Criminal Charges in N.Y. Trial

“Steven Donziger, the defendant in this case, intentionally and repeatedly disobeyed court order after court order after court order,” prosecutor Rita Marie Glavin said in her opening statement on Monday.

The decades-long battle between an oil company and an activist lawyer, with Ecuador’s indigenous people in the middle, became a rallying cry for environmentalists and like-minded celebrities who saw the giant judgment that resulted as a triumph. Before the trial started on Monday, Donziger addressed supporters outside the courthouse, who were joined by the actor Susan Sarandon and Roger Waters of the rock band Pink Floyd. In court he sat with his lawyers wearing a mask that read “Free Donziger.”

Chevron Gadfly Donziger Faces Criminal Charges in N.Y. Trial

Donziger has been publicly supported by lawmakers including New York Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and by dozens of Nobel laureates who last week sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland demanding a halt to the prosecution.

Before the trial began, Donziger tweeted, in part: “As I head into my Chevron-orchestrated ‘trial’ today after 643 days of house arrest, please never forget what this case is really about. Chevron caused a mass industrial poisoning of the Amazon.”

If convicted, Donziger would likely argue that he deserves no time in jail and that his time in home confinement should be applied to reduce any sentence.

Read More: Chevron Wins Judgment Against Ex-Lawyer Who Sued in Ecuador

At the trial, Glavin stood before U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska in the same federal courthouse where Donziger lost to Chevron. But she isn’t a federal prosecutor. The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan declined to prosecute Donziger, citing limited resources. In an unusual move, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who ruled for Chevron in 2014, appointed a group of outside lawyers including Glavin to represent the government as special prosecutors.

Kaplan had no jurisdiction over the Ecuadorian courts, but blocked the judgment from being enforced in the U.S.

After Glavin, Martin Garbus, a lawyer for Donziger, began by focusing on Chevron’s role in prompting the criminal charges against his client and on the government’s decision not to go forward with the case. He referred to Glavin as “the Chevron prosecutor.”

The judge frequently interrupted Garbus’s opening, questioning the relevance of his points and ruling to strike many of his arguments from the record.

“Mr. Garbus, this is not a press conference,” Preska told him. “We are here to talk about the evidence in this case.”

Garbus argued that Donziger wasn’t guilty of purposely violating the court orders and that he was just trying to vigorously represent his Ecuadorian clients.

“Mr. Donziger is innocent of every single charge that has been leveled,” he told the judge.

The case is being tried before Preska without a jury. The lawyers told her they expect the trial to end no later than next week.

The case is U.S. v. Donziger, 19-cr-00561, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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