Bribery accusations in case against Chevron

BOGOTA, Colombia — With talk of million-dollar payoffs and clandestine videos made with James Bond-style mini-cameras, the legal battle pitting Chevron Corp against Ecuadorian activists over environmental damage in the Amazon jungle is getting stranger by the day.

In the latest twist in the 15-year-old legal case, Chevron has released videotapes that, according to the company, implicate the presiding judge and an official from the country’s ruling political party in a $3 million bribery scheme.

In one of the videos, Judge Juan Nunez also appears to acknowledge that he will soon rule against Chevron.

“These videos raise serious questions about corruption, executive branch interference and prejudgment of the case,” said Chevron Executive Vice President Charles James in a statement.

But Steven Donziger, a New York-based attorney representing the plaintiffs, charged Chevron with carrying out a “Richard Nixon-style dirty-tricks campaign” to smear Ecuador’s legal system and delay a final ruling. If Chevron loses, the San Ramon, Calif.,-based firm could be ordered to pay up to $27 billion in reparations — potentially the largest civil damages award ever imposed. Chevron, meanwhile, has lobbied the U.S. government to impose trade sanctions on Ecuador as punishment for the way the case has been handled.

The plaintiffs in the suit, who include thousands of residents living in the Amazon region in northeastern Ecuador, claim that oil production by Texaco — which operated in Ecuador from 1964 to 1990 and was acquired by Chevron in 2001 — poisoned their lands, rivers and ground water with toxic chemicals.

Chevron, which has no operations in Ecuador, argues that Texaco carried out a successful clean-up of 160 waste pits and that the company was released from any future liability for environmental damages by the Ecuadorian government.

Although Chevron has at times praised the Ecuadorian courts, the company portrays itself as the victim of a corrupt legal system, and Ecuador’s left-wing president, Rafael Correa, who has publicly sided with the plaintiffs. The videotapes now stand as Exhibit A for the company’s argument.

Chevron said the recordings were made by Diego Borja, a former Chevron contractor, and an American businessman identified as Wayne Hansen who apparently was seeking contracts to clean up oil production sites once Judge Nunez handed down his verdict.

The men used tiny cameras hidden in a watch and a pen to record four meetings between May and June 2009. Chevron says the recordings were made without its knowledge. The company provided no explanation for why the men would secretly tape the meetings.

Since receiving the videotapes in June, Chevron has provided financial assistance to Borja and his family to relocate “because of concerns for Borja’s safety.” Neither Borja nor Hansen have been made available to journalists.

On one of the tapes, Borja and Hansen repeatedly press Judge Nunez on whether he plans to rule against Chevron. Each time, Nunez refuses to answer. Finally, near the end of the conversation, Hansen asks again if Chevron will be declared guilty.

Nunez says: “Yes sir.”

Chevron sees this response as evidence of the judge’s bias. Donziger, the U.S. lawyer, says Nunez may have simply been acknowledging the question. Elsewhere on the tapes, Borja and Hansen speak with Patricio Garcia, who identifies himself as an official with Alianza PAIS, the country’s ruling party. Garcia indicates to the businessmen that to secure cleanup contracts, $1 million must be paid to the presidency, $1 million to Alianza PAIS, and $1 million to Judge Nunez.

Chevron is now seeking the disqualification of Judge Nunez and an annulment of his prior rulings.

“No judge who has participated in meetings of the type shown on these tapes could possibly deliver a legitimate decision,” said Campbell, Chevron’s executive vice president.

The Ecuadorian government said Judge Nunez will be investigated.

Still, the videotapes do little to burnish Chevron’s image in Ecuador.

While Judge Nunez is not present in any of the videotaped conversations in which payoffs are mentioned, Borja — the former Chevron contractor — is involved in the discussions.

Pablo Fajardo, an Ecuadorian lawyer for the plaintiffs, claimed that Borja was part of a plot engineered by Chevron to undermine the legal process so the company can avoid paying a colossal judgement.

“The bottom line is that evidence in the trial shows that Chevron is responsible for wrecking Ecuador’s rainforest,” said Donziger, the American lawyer. “Nothing Chevron has presented in these videos changes these underlying facts one bit.”