Mired in a $27 billion environmental lawsuit in Ecuador, Chevron Corp. has taken the unusual step of trying to subpoena the other side's lead lawyer, arguing that he has committed fraud upon the court.
Chevron persuaded a U.S. federal judge last month to grant a subpoena of Steven Donziger, head of the legal team seeking to hold the company responsible for oil-field contamination in the Ecuadoran rain forest. Donziger's attorneys are trying to quash the subpoena.
The move is the latest bare-knuckled legal tactic San Ramon's Chevron has pursued in the 17-year-old case. Since February, the oil company has been filing motions in courts throughout the United States, seeking to depose consultants who worked for Donziger and the plaintiffs' legal team. Chevron even won access to hours of unused footage from a documentary film about the lawsuit.
In each instance, Chevron is searching for evidence of improper conduct by the opposing lawyers, evidence the company hopes will show that the trial has been tainted.
Chevron has used evidence gathered through the motions to question the independence of a key court-appointed expert in the case. And one of the environmental consultants deposed by the company said the plaintiffs' legal team attached his signature to a report he didn't agree with.
"Donziger appears to be the ringleader, here," said Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson. "He appears to be the one coordinating the fraud. ... If Mr. Donziger hadn't engaged in fraud, there'd be no need to depose him."
Donziger declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed. But Ilann Maazel, another lawyer on the plaintiffs' team, called the spate of subpoenas a last-ditch attempt to undermine the trial before the judge reaches a verdict, possibly next year.
"It's definitely a harassing tactic," Maazel said. "They're just trying to overwhelm the plaintiffs. It's a war of attrition."
Hardball tactics have long characterized the lawsuit, which is being closely watched worldwide.
Its origins stretch back to 1964, when Texaco began drilling for oil in the Ecuadoran Amazon. The company worked in partnership with local company Petroecuador, and as part of its operations, Texaco dumped a mix of petroleum and water into open pits near the oil wells. When Texaco pulled out of the country in 1992, it agreed to clean up a portion of the area while Petroecuador continued to operate the wells. Chevron bought Texaco in 2001.
The plaintiffs contend the cleanup was a sham and say the area's soil and water are horribly contaminated. Chevron insists any remaining pollution is Petroecuador's problem.
Chevron executives have grown increasingly pessimistic about the case, and they have claimed for years that the trial, held in the town of Lago Agrio, has been tainted by judicial misconduct and government interference.
They are now concentrating their efforts on trying to prove that misconduct. According to a story that appeared last month in the Atlantic magazine, a firm working for Chevron on the case even tried to hire a freelance reporter to investigate whether the plaintiffs' team had interfered with a study showing high cancer rates in the region. The journalist declined.
Chevron's motions in U.S. courts have been more successful.
The company first sought to depose one of the plaintiffs' environmental consultants, Charles Calmbacher, after noticing that his name was misspelled on some of the documents he supposedly wrote, Robertson said.
"We presumed Dr. Calmbacher knew how to spell his own name, and that perhaps there were filings that were being falsified in his name," Robertson said.
A federal judge in Georgia granted Chevron's request. In the resulting deposition, Calmbacher said he did not agree with the conclusions of a report bearing his signature, a report that claimed dangerous levels of contamination at two former drilling sites. In fact, he said, he did not find significant contamination threatening the health of the people or wildlife nearby.
A spokeswoman for the plaintiffs said Calmbacher resented the legal team for firing him after he failed to produce reports by a court-ordered deadline. Calmbacher also sued the plaintiffs' team over unpaid fees, a suit that the two sides eventually settled.
But Chevron considered the deposition a success and began to seek more. To date, the company has filed 11 such motions.
Access to outtakes
The fight over outtakes from the documentary "Crude" garnered the most attention, with filmmaker Joe Berlinger arguing the motion impinged on the freedom of the press. But a judge gave Chevron access to some of the footage, saying it could prove material to the company's defense in the Ecuadoran suit.
Chevron has already used one of the outtakes to support its claim that the plaintiffs' lawyers colluded with a court-appointed expert who came up with the $27 billion damage estimate. Another outtake, the company says, reveals that the plaintiffs' team has no evidence that contamination has spread into the local groundwater.
The plaintiffs' lawyers deny those allegations. They accuse Chevron of trumpeting only those comments in the "Crude" outtakes that seem to back the company's allegations while ignoring other comments - sometimes in the same scenes - that contradict Chevron.
E-mail David R. Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org .