HOUSTON — An American whose secret recordings have placed him at the center of a $27 billion lawsuit against Chevron in Ecuador is a convicted drug trafficker, records show, throwing another complication into a case already tainted by accusations of bribery and espionage.
The lawsuit pits Ecuadorean peasants against Chevron over oil pollution in the Amazon and has been a major headache for the company for nearly a decade, producing a saga that underscores many of the hazards and ethical challenges of oil companies working in the developing world.
The company appeared to gain the upper hand in August when it revealed video recordings — captured on watches and pens implanted with bugging devices — that suggested a bribery scheme involving Ecuadorean officials, and possibly even the judge hearing the case.
But the company was put on the defensive again on Thursday, after lawyers for the peasants revealed that one of two men who made the tapes was a convicted felon. Court and other records provided by the plaintiffs show that Wayne Hansen, the American who helped make the recordings, was convicted of conspiring to traffic 275,000 pounds of marijuana from Colombia to the United States in 1986. He also was sued successfully in 2005 by a woman who accused him of unleashing his two pit bulls to attack her and her dog.
The disclosure adds more questions about what motivated Mr. Hansen and an Ecuadorean partner to record meetings for Chevron’s use, which the company has characterized as an act of whistle-blowing by men offended by unethical behavior and evidence that the handling of the case had been flawed.
“It’s another blockbuster development in a case that never runs short of them,” said Ralph G. Steinhardt, a professor at George Washington University Law School. “It doesn’t necessarily mean there was no bribery plan, but anything that undermines the credibility of the witness undermines the case of the party that would call that witness.”
Trevor Melby, Mr. Hansen’s lawyer, did not deny his client had a criminal history, saying, “The thing about felony convictions is they follow you to the grave, but even if he had 15 felony convictions it wouldn’t change the tapes.” Mr. Melby said he was not being paid by Chevron.
The origins of the case go back to the 1970s, when Texaco operated in partnership with the Ecuadorean state oil company to produce oil in the Amazon. Peasants filed suit in 1993, saying that the company, which had ceased to operate in Ecuador by then, had left an environmental mess that had caused illnesses among villagers. Chevron bought Texaco before the case could be resolved.
Chevron has long said that it could not receive a fair hearing in Ecuador before a hostile judge and government. That argument seemed to be reinforced by the recordings obtained by Mr. Hansen and an Ecuadorean man who had worked as a contractor for the company. They showed an Ecuadorean political go-between working to obtain $3 million in bribes for environmental cleanup contracts to be awarded after the case ended.
But it remained unclear why Mr. Hansen was involved in the discussions. The plaintiffs said that an inquiry into his background by a private investigator found that Mr. Hansen did not hold an engineering license, never finished college and showed no record of being qualified to remediate pollution as he portrayed to Ecuadorean officials in the tapes.
Chevron has said it had no involvement in the videotaping, and company spokesmen have said Mr. Hansen was never their point of contact. “We’ve had no association with this guy,” said Donald Campbell, a Chevron spokesman. “This issue is the content on the video and the transcripts that we turned over to the prosecutor general of Ecuador and the U.S. Department of Justice, which shows inappropriate meetings by the judge in our case, extensive government interference in the trial and a bribe plot involving $3 million.”
The other man involved in making the recordings, Diego Borja, has since been moved to the United States with his family at Chevron’s expense, and he has been receiving an undisclosed amount of living expenses.
No bribes were shown in the tapes, but the plot supposedly included Judge Juan Núñez, who was presiding in the case. Mr. Núñez recused himself, though he says he did nothing wrong.