The Chevron Tapes: How U.S. Federal Judge Kaplan Tried to Help Oil Giant Hide Its Corruption in Ecuador


Reposted from The Chevron Pit.

The stunning internal Chevron internal videos released last week by VICE and the environmental group Amazon Watch demonstrate the oil company knew of its massive contamination in Ecuador’s rainforest and had an elaborate ruse to lie about it in court.

That the Chevron trickery failed and it lost the trial anyway changes little about the company’s venal attempt to get away with its fraud in the first place. What is becoming increasingly clear is that while most large oil companies are bad, Chevron under CEO John Watson’s leadership has become real bad. In fact, as the tapes show, the company is flirting dangerously with the outer boundaries of the law.

Less well known is why the Chevron tapes took so long to see the light of day. An apparent whistleblower from the company mailed them to Amazon Watch in 2011 with a note signed, “A friend from Chevron.” (For background on the tapes and to view them, see here for Amazon Watch’s version and here for the Vice News report.)

The delay in the release of the tapes is to a great degree the result of what we would consider to be highly devious and inappropriate attempts by both Chevron and U.S. federal judge Lewis A. Kaplan to suppress them as evidence. Chevron and Kaplan did this by trying to claim the tapes were “confidential” throughout Chevron’s retaliatory RICO proceeding against the Ecuadorian villagers, which took place with Kaplan presiding from February 2011 to March of 2014.

Amazon Watch had quietly turned over the Chevron tapes to lawyers who had prosecuted Chevron in Ecuador and were later forced to defend themselves before Judge Kaplan. Kaplan was no neutral arbiter. He had disparaged the Ecuadorian villagers from the bench, invited Chevron to bring the case, and then assigned it to his court. (For the general background on how Chevron made a mockery of justice before Kaplan, see this analysis.)

As the “racketeering” trial date neared in the Fall of 2013, the U.S. attorneys Steven Donziger (the longtime legal advisor to the affected villagers) and Julio Gomez (representing two Ecuadorian defendants) tried to use the tapes in a deposition of Chevron’s chief scientist, Sara McMillan. It was McMillan and Chevron consultant John Connor who helped design the company’s clearly deceptive soil sampling strategy for the Ecuador trial. This strategy can be seen in the videos and a soil sampling “playbook” that directed the company’s field hands to only find “clean” samples at well sites otherwise saturated with oil waste.

(Chevron’s “playbook” fraud helps one understand exactly what its technicians are doing in the secret videos. See this article by Karen Hinton in the Huffington Post for more background on this aspect of Chevron’s fraud.)

Chevron, however, immediately claimed confidentiality over the videos during the McMillan deposition and with Kaplan’s backing was able to shut down any questioning about them. Earlier, Chevron lawyer Ethan Dettmer sent a letter to lawyers for the Ecuadorians demanding that the videos be returned to the company – even though the lawyers had no power (nor obligation) to do so, given that the originals were in the hands of Amazon Watch. In writing the letter, Dettmer acknowledged that the videos were Chevron’s property.

Even though the internal Chevron videos clearly were relevant to several key issues regarding the Ecuador judgment – including Chevron’s attempt to corrupt the evidence-gathering process – Kaplan would not let them be used either in deposition or in trial. In fact, Kaplan jumped through hoops to prevent Chevron’s repeated attempts to sabotage the judicial process in Ecuador from ever seeing the light of day in his courtroom.  (For a sense of the extent of Chevron’s profoundy disturbing misconduct in Ecuador suppressed by Kaplan, see this affidavit by Ecuadorian lawyer Juan Pablo Saenz.)

Kaplan also helped Chevron suppress the most critical evidence of all. That’s the 105 technical reports submitted to the Ecuador court by various experts that demonstrate Chevron left behind extensive and life-threatening levels of contamination at hundreds of its former well sites when it abandoned the country in 1992. These reports – most of them authored by Chevron’s own experts – were only the basis for the finding of liability against the company by three layers of courts in Ecuador.

These are just a few of the reasons why we call the Chevron/Kaplan racketeering proceeding a show trial. As the appellate briefs show (see here and here), the trial was reverse-engineered by a judge who refused to seat a jury and who clearly disliked the notion of sophisticated American lawyers working with Amazonian villagers to hold a large American company accountable. Kaplan’s disdain for the entire notion of Ecuadorian courts hearing a case against an American company is palpable throughout the transcripts of the proceeding.

Given that the appeal of Judge Kaplan’s decision in favor of Chevron will be heard next week in Manhattan by a three-judge panel, let’s review the highlights of his pro-Chevron bias:

  • He repeatedly disparaged the villagers in open court – calling them the “so-called” plaintiffs “said to reside” in the Amazon rainforest.
  • Prior to trial and without as much as an evidentiary hearing, he tried to impose an unprecedented and blatantly illegal global injunction purporting to block the villagers from enforcing their judgment anywhere in the world. The injunction was reversed unanimously the first business day after oral argument.
  • He called Steven Donziger, the U.S. lawyer for the villagers, a “p.r. flak” who was trying to use the case to “fix the balance of payments deficit” of the United States.
  • He allowed Chevron to pay $2 million to an admittedly corrupt former Ecuadorian judge to testify about a supposed “bribe” that never occurred.
  • He refused to admit into evidence any of the three decisions from Ecuador’s trial and appellate courts finding Chevron liable and imposing damages.

We note that since the end of the “racketeering” trial even more evidence has emerged (see this new blog) from the authoritative Louis Berger Group showing that Chevron lied about having remediated its waste pits in Ecuador. This new sampling data further underscores the absurdity of Kaplan’s rulings related to the company’s contamination.

We believe a decision by a U.S. trial judge based so obviously on a distorted view of the evidence will have little credibility in enforcement courts in Canada and Brazil where the courageous Ecuadorian villagers are trying to seize Chevron’s assets. Chevron obviously agrees given its gargantuan effort to block the Canadian enforcement action from even proceeding to the merits.

In the meantime, Amazon Watch has done the world a great service by reviewing, dubbing, and releasing Chevron’s secret tapes. Doing so was an extraordinary act of courage by both the Chevron whistleblower and one of the nation’s leading environmental groups.