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Accusations of bribery in legal battle between Chevron and Ecuadorian activists

BOGOTA, Colombia — There’s been a mysterious twist in the legal battle pitting Chevron Corp. against Ecuadorian activists who want the U.S. energy company to pay for a cleanup of massive environmental damage in the Amazon jungle.

Billions are at stake in the lawsuit, which is being argued before a judge in a ramshackle court room in the Ecuadorian oil boom town of Lago Agrio, located just across the border from Colombia.

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.

Now, just as the 15-year-old case enters its final stages, Chevron has released secretly recorded videotapes that, according to the company, implicate the judge and a senior official from the ruling government party in a $3 million bribery scheme.

In a statement, Chevron said:

 "In the videos, the judge confirms that he will rule against Chevron and that appeals by the energy company will be denied — even though the trial is ongoing and evidence is still being received. A purported party official also states that lawyers from the executive branch have been sent to assist the judge in writing the decision.

"The recorded meetings also show an individual who claims to be a representative of Ecuador's ruling political party, Alianza PAIS, seeking $3 million in bribes in return for handing out environmental remediation contracts to two businessmen after the verdict is handed down. Of that sum, he said $1 million would go to Judge Juan Nuñez, $1 million would go to "the presidency" and $1 million to the plaintiffs."

Chevron is seeking a disqualification of the judge and an annulment of his prior rulings in the case.

But Steven Donziger, a New York-based attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the release of the videotapes is a stunt that raises more questions about the behavior of Chevron than the judge. He called the release of the tapes a desperate “Richard Nixon-style dirty-tricks campaign” designed to delay a final ruling that Chevron knows it will lose.

"Ninety-nine percent of the evidence is in. The evidence is overwhelmingly unfavorable to Chevron," Donziger said. "If the judge did anything wrong, there are mechanisms to remove him and a new judge will come in. This does not change one bit the fact that Texaco (which was acquired by Chevron in 2001) wrecked the Amazon rain forest and needs to pay for the cleanup."