Steven Donziger Suspended From Practicing Law: Attorney Who Masterminded Chevron Ecuador Fraud

Steven Donziger suspended?

Steven Donziger, the man behind the biggest environmental fraud in history, was stripped of his ability to practice law in New York for his role in fabricating evidence, bribing judges, and manipulating the Ecuador judicial system in a fraud he concocted against Texaco, later purchased by Chevron Oil Company, based in nearby San Ramon, Calif.

When Donziger first brought the case 20 years ago, he labeled it the “Amazon Chernobyl” and the “Rainforest Chernobyl,” calling it the worst case of corporate oil pollution in history. He claimed thousands died and many more were injured by massive dumping of toxic oil waste water in the Oriente region of Ecuador.

Mr. Donziger’s claims turned out to be fake, manufactured by producing false documents, bribery and extortion, according to court proceedings.

Donziger almost got away with the multi-billion dollar lawsuit fraud, enlisting environmental groups like Amazon Watch, Earth Justice, and others to support his cause along with Hollywood celebrities that included the musician Sting, his wife Trudie Styler, Danny Glover, Mia Farrow, Mick Jagger’s ex-wife Bianca Jagger, Daryl Hannah and others, all of whom served as dupes for his cause.

But Mr. Donziger’s claims were undone by his own hand and hubris. Many trace Steven’s downfall to his financing of the Hollywood movie by director Joe Berlinger, “Crude: The Real Price of Oil.” The movie, which billed itself as an exposé documentary of Chevron Texaco’s wrongdoing, in fact turned out to expose Donziger’s and his confederates own wrongdoing and gave Chevron the key evidence it needed to demonstrate the case against it in Ecuador was a fraud.

Back when the case was going well for the plaintiffs, in 2011, Donziger won an $18 billion judgment, later reduced to $9.5 billion, against Chevron in Ecuador, where he represented villagers who blamed environmental contamination between 1964 and 1992 on Chevron Texaco, Reuters reports.

But in 2014, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in Manhattan said Donziger and his legal team used bribery, coercion and fraud to obtain the judgment, and barred them from “profiting in any way from the egregious fraud that occurred.”

In this week’s decision, a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division, First Department in Manhattan granted an order sought by the department’s attorney grievance committee finding Donziger guilty of professional misconduct.

The ruling is here. The case is In re: Donziger, New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, 1st Department, No. M-5635.

It said that while Donziger had appealed Kaplan’s decision, which ran nearly 500 pages, he “chose not to challenge the underlying factual findings” addressing such conduct as bribery, witness tampering, and the ghostwriting of a court opinion.

“Because Judge Kaplan’s findings constitute uncontroverted evidence of serious professional misconduct which immediately threatens the public interest, respondent should be immediately suspended,” the appeals court said.

Donziger was admitted to practice law in New York in 1997.

He has been trying to enforce the Ecuadorean judgment in other countries, including Argentina, Brazil and Canada. The U.S. Supreme Court refused in June 2017 to take up his case.

Chevron has always denied that Texaco caused the pollution in Ecuador and made a point of showing the documents the company received from the Government of Ecuador that demonstrated it remediated its portion of oil work in Ecuador.

The oil company felt so strongly that the claims made by Donziger (who even enlisted the former dictator of Ecuador Rafael Correa in the fraud) that it was it would “fight until hell freezes over. . . and then we’ll fight it out on the ice” to demonstrate the claims against the company in Ecuador were fake.

As it turned out, Chevron didn’t have to wait until Hell froze over to win, but it took the company millions of dollars in legal fees and nearly three decades of fighting misleading and false stories in the news media planted by Donziger, Amazon Watch, Hollywood celebrities, and other front groups, to demonstrate the claims against the company were faked and based upon a compromised judicial system in Ecuador that Donziger exploited through bribery, extortion and documents he manipulated to his benefit.

“Because [U.S. District Court Judge Lewis] Kaplan’s findings constitute uncontroverted evidence of serious professional misconduct which immediately threatens the public interest, respondent should be immediately suspended,” the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, First Judicial Department, said in its unanimous decision.  Donziger was “found to have engaged in . . . coercion, fraud and bribery” in procuring a multibillion dollar Ecuadorian judgment against Chevron.  The disciplinary matter centers on Donziger’s “judicial coercion, corruption of a court expert and ghostwriting of his report, misrepresentations concerning the expert’s independence, obstruction of justice, witness tampering, improperly threatening criminal prosecution, and judicial bribery,” the Court stated.  

In suspending Donziger’s law license, the Appellate Division specifically found that Donziger “was afforded a full and fair opportunity to litigate, as evinced by the voluminous record on which Judge Kaplan’s findings were based. Judge Kaplan conducted a seven-week trial, heard 31 live witnesses (including respondent), and considered sworn testimony of three dozen others, as well as thousands of documents. Respondent appealed Judge Kaplan’s decision, yet chose not to challenge the underlying factual findings. Thus, his argument that he was denied meaningful appellate review fails.”

This suspension, which typically precedes a permanent revocation of the license to practice law, follows a complaint against Donziger referred in December 2016 by Judge P. Kevin Castel, Chair of the U.S. Southern District of New York Grievance Committee, to the Attorney Grievance Committee for the Appellate Division, First Department (“First Department Committee”).

In the referral, Judge Castel wrote that U.S. federal courts “found that Mr. Donziger and the Ecuadorian lawyers he led corrupted the case. Donziger and others submitted fraudulent evidence. Donziger and others coerced a judge to appoint an individual who was paid as a plaintiff’s damages expert to make a supposedly impartial overall damages assessment. Donziger and others then paid a Colorado consulting firm secretly to ghostwrite the expert’s report and then made misrepresentation to U.S. Courts to cover their tracks. Donziger and others also wrote the Judgment themselves and bribed the Ecuadorian judge to sign it.”

The referral followed the 2014 determination by U.S. federal Judge Lewis A. Kaplan that Donziger had violated the federal Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), committing extortion, money laundering, wire fraud, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations, witness tampering and obstruction of justice in obtaining the Ecuadorian judgment and in trying to cover up the crimes committed by him and his associates.

During the seven-week RICO and fraud trial, Chevron presented unrefuted evidence detailing the extent of the fraudulent acts undertaken and directed by Donziger, his Ecuadorian legal team and other associates, including fabricating environmental evidence, pressuring scientific experts to falsify reports, plotting to intimidate judges into handing down favorable rulings, bribing court-appointed experts, ghostwriting court reports and even drafting the final judgment.

Stay tuned.

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