Lawyer who sued Chevron over Ecuador pollution faces N.Y. contempt trial
By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A disbarred American lawyer who spent more than two decades battling Chevron Corp over pollution in the Ecuadorian rainforest is set to go on trial on Monday in federal court in Manhattan on criminal contempt charges stemming from a lawsuit against him by the energy company.
Opening statements are scheduled in the trial of Steven Donziger on contempt charges for failing to turn over his computer, phones and other electronic devices and refusing to surrender his passport in the civil case brought by Chevron. U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska is presiding over the case, with no jury.
It is the latest twist in a long-running battle stemming from Donziger's representation of villagers in Ecuador's Lago Agrio region who sought to hold Chevron liable for water and soil contamination in the jungle between 1964 and 1992. Chevron has said Texaco, which was acquired by Chevron, cleaned up the pollution, and that state-owned Petroecuador was mainly responsible for the contamination.
Donziger in 2011 won a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron in an Ecuadorian court. Later that year, the U.S. company sued Donziger in Manhattan federal court, claiming he and his associates orchestrated the writing of a key environmental report and pressured the presiding judge in Ecuador.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in 2014 ruled in favor of Chevron, saying the Ecuadorian judgment had been secured through bribery, fraud and extortion.
Chevron sought to recoup money Donziger reaped as a result of the judgment, and Donziger was ordered to turn over certain electronic devices to the company's forensic experts. When he refused, Kaplan charged him with criminal contempt.
Donziger has said the charges violate his rights to due process under the U.S. Constitution.
The Harvard-trained lawyer was disbarred by a state appeals court in New York last year. The court cited Donziger's "egregious" misconduct relating to the Chevron litigation, which it said included ghostwriting a court expert's report, obstruction of justice, witness tampering, judicial coercion and bribery.
Donziger has spent more than 20 months in home confinement awaiting the trial, which was postponed several times, partly due to the coronavirus pandemic. Human rights and environmental watchdog groups have called the home-detention conditions excessive.
(Reporting by Sebastien Malo; Editing by Will Dunham and Noeleen Walder)