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Big hole in Big-Oil lawsuit

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By Debra J. Saunders
Published:
The story starts with a former journalist and Harvard Law School graduate who wanted to improve conditions for Ecuadorean people living in the Amazon rain forest, polluted by a big oil company. In 2011, attorney Steven Donziger won a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron Corp. But don’t expect a happy ending for his clients.
On Tuesday, Lewis Kaplan, a federal judge in New York, ruled that the Chevron judgment was “procured by fraud” and later covered up by “half-truths.” Donziger’s legal team “submitted fraudulent evidence,” paid off a court-appointed “global expert” and even wrote the $9.5 billion judgment handed down by Ecuadorean Judge Nicolas Zambrano Lozada, who was promised a $500,000 reward by Donziger’s legal team.
Donziger’s attorneys are confident that they’ll win during appeal. Spokeswoman Karen Hinton charges that the Bill Clinton-appointed judge was prejudiced against Donziger from the start. That’s why he believed the testimony of the corrupt former Ecuadorean judge who ghostwrote some of Zambrano’s decision. (The ghostwriting judge, by the way, is living in America on Chevron’s dime.)
Did Zambrano write the Chevron judgment? I asked.
“Yes,” Hinton answered. “Did he author every word? I don’t know.” On the witness stand, however, Zambrano had trouble explaining key elements of his opinion or how he had inserted French and American law when he didn’t speak French or English.
As I read Kaplan’s finding of a lawsuit gone wild, I was struck at how well Donziger had mastered the global warming alarmist playbook.
— Start with scary numbers, solid or not. Donziger hired an expert who guesstimated Chevron owed $6 billion in damages. The expert later told the team not to use the number, as it was “SWAG” -- a “scientific wild-ass guess.” Didn’t matter. Donziger waged a public relations blitz based on the bogus $6 billion figure. Celebrities jumped on the bandwagon. “60 Minutes” aired a positive piece.
— Go after skeptics. The judge experienced this himself.
There’s no such thing as too much publicity. Donziger arranged for a friend to bankroll a flattering documentary, “Crude,” which helped unravel Donziger. Someone from Chevron noticed that a Netflix version of “Crude” included a scene — later edited out — with an independent expert working with the plaintiff team.
— Enlist top Democrats. Biggies such as then-New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo exerted pressure on Chevron to settle the case.
Why didn’t Chevron settle? “We believed that this case was already settled once,” responded spokesman Morgan Crinklaw. In the 1990s, Texaco (which Chevron purchased in 2001) spent $40 million cleaning the oil pits in the rain forest, under an agreement with Petroecuador.
Given the plaintiff team’s antics with research, Kaplan came to believe what one of the plaintiffs’ many attorneys concluded: “We’ll never know whether or not there was a case to be made against Chevron.”
For all his show of standing up for the little guys in the rain forest, in the end it was all about Donziger. He was caught boasting on camera: “I once worked for a lawyer who said something I’ve never forgotten. He said, ‘Facts do not exist. Facts are created.’?” And: “Science has to serve the law practice. The law practice doesn’t serve science.” That’s what the big-shot environmental lawyer Donziger really thought.
Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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