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An interview with corporate-political prisoner Steven Donziger

Published by marco on

This is an excellent interview with Steven Donziger, who’s a corporate/political prisoner in America. He is an American lawyer who was instrumental in helping an international team get a multi-billion-dollar judgment against Chevron in Ecuador for their poisoning of the environment and reckless endangerment of indigenous peoples.

The interview starts at 28:00.

Lawyer Steven Donziger Under House Arrest for Suing Chevron by Useful Idiots (YouTube)

Ecuador’s indigenous peoples won the judgment, and courts everywhere in the world but in the U.S. have recognized it. Chevron will have to pay at some point, but they are delaying the payment as long as possible. The U.S. government and court system is helping them. In this case, when the government declined the case, the judge appointed a corporate prosecutor to continue the case. The prosecutor works for a Chevron law firm. See 41:00 or so.

This reminds me of EvilCorp from Mr. Robot S01E08, where Colby lectures Angela on the reality of corporate lawsuits. I included the full quote in Capsule Movie Reviews Vol.2016.3, but the part that is probably germane to this case is included below.

Angela: This is a huge class-action lawsuit. They’re going to pay millions.
Colby: Roughly 75 to 100 million. I mean, that’s what their lawyers will settle for—after they exhaust most of your team’s legal funds for the next seven years. And sure, that’s…that’s a lot of money, but not to them, not really. We started a rainy-day fund when the leak happened, just for this occasion. The fund itself has already made five times that amount.”

Fact imitates fiction imitating fact.

Donziger is being prosecuted not by the government, as is usual, but by corporate lawyers, in a circuit court run by a couple of judges who are quite clearly beholden to Chevron’s interests. He is being accused of a trumped-up charge of corruption or trial manipulation or some such thing—but it would be thrown out of court immediately, were it ever to get that far.

That’s why they hold the case in limbo instead. That this is even possible is a testament to the degree to which corporations control the U.S. at all levels, including the the judiciary. See 36:00 for Donziger’s description, where he also describes “civil RICO”, which is the law under which he’s being prosecuted.

The case has dragged on for over two years, during which Donziger has remained under house arrest, with a few exceptions. He has to wear an ankle bracelet. His case has never actually gone to trial. This is pre-trial detention in his home. The maximum historical penalty for the charges leveled against him are 90 days house arrest. He has had almost 800 days—and he’s never been prosecuted nor even seen a trial. He is just being detained indefinitely.

Donziger presents his case well, always focusing on the judgment and the Ecuadorean people first, then emphasizing that he is going to be fine. He is “trapped” in his New York apartment with extremely limited mobility, but he can communicate and he can leave for very special reasons (e.g. occasionally partake in son’s activities in school).

Donziger is in all ways better off than, say, Julian Assage, who is an actual political prisoner of the government, being held in far worse conditions even though he’s also never been convicted of a crime. Assange was, in fact, exonerated in his trial, but is being held in prison while the U.S. prepares its appeal, taking months and months and months to do so. The British government calls him a flight risk and chirpily imprisons a citizen of two foreign governments (Assange is Australian and now Ecuadorean) without a care.

This is how our governments rule; this is the respect they have for rule-of-law. They are monomaniacal, power-hungry, imperialist, authoritarian, hypocritical entities that cannot be trusted in any way to do the right thing or to support any principle. Ethics mean nothing to them. They serve only that which extends and supports their personal fortunes and power.

While it is entirely possible that China is the same, the U.S. and UK are the last ones that could hope to take the moral high ground in such accusations. If China takes over the U.S. role, then, in the eyes of 99% of the world, nothing will have changed but the flag. For many not in the western world, it will be a marked improvement.

I’ve included some selected quotes below, but almost everything Donziger says is important and illuminating. The entire 35-minute interview is worth your time. I’ve heard several interviews with him, but this is the most succinct and eminently understandable one I’ve seen/heard. He is extremely careful and precise in his language in describing this case, which is both admirable and prudent, considering there are hordes of lawyers just waiting for him to slip up in some way that lets them bury him even further.

At 43:50 he discusses his “prosecution”.

“They don’t want this case to go before a jury. […] I got convicted or found guilty of felony criminal offenses by a single trial judge without a jury. And then, after that, I’m going to be potentially put in jail by a judge connected to Chevron—again, without a jury. […] This is a parade of horrors, in America, as regards to trampling of someone’s due-process rights. And the fact that I’m a lawyer—and a reputable lawyer—a human rights lawyer—I have never had a single client grievance in 28 years of practice—by the way, I’m disbarred in New York by judge Kaplan [the judge in the current case]. To be clear, I never had a hearing. […] I never had a hearing where I could challenge his findings that I’d bribed a judge.”

At 45:45 he waves away the personal impact to focus on the way Chevron is trying to establish a discouraging precedent for future action.

“Look, this is bad for me. It’s difficult. I’m strong. I’m resilient. I have a great family. Tons of support. 68 Nobel Laureates. Six Congresspersons. I’m going to be OK. We’re going to get through this. The real problem is: this goes way beyond me. […] This is a corporate playbook, invented by Chevron and its law firm Gibson-Dunn. Gibson-Dunn makes hundreds of millions of dollars in fees off me. They enrich themselves by implementing this playbook that is designed to criminalize human-rights lawyering […]”

At 48:30 he describes the parameters of the original case against Texaco/Chevron.

“This case is owned by the indigenous peoples and farmer communities in Ecuador—about 80 communities—who live and work in an area where Chevron (via Texaco) operated from 1964 to 1992 and deliberately dumped 16 billion gallons of cancer-causing oil waste into the environment, into the waters, into the groundwater, and it’s still going on. You can go down there and see the damage and can see it’s still happening. Pipes out of these waste pits going into streams that people drink out of. This, again, was a deliberate decision made by Texaco to save money, with the clearly foreseeable result that people would die.”

At 49:30 he expresses confidence that Chevron will eventually have to pay up, that they’re not giving up because they’re going to win—not only the case, but the money.

“This is a model of human-rights litigation […] We’re now in year 28 of this. […] It really is an epic battle, but make no mistake, the affected communities in Ecuador are the winners. They won the case. And the reason this is happening to me now is precisely because we won—our team won—and Chevron doesn’t want to comply with the rule of law. And they prefer to spend money to attack the lawyers. They don’t want the precedent that they have to write a check […] That judgment can be enforced in any country in the world except for the United States because of this ruling against me. So Chevron faces enormous financial risk.

“[…] When I say they won, that’s what I mean. They haven’t collected, so Chevron hasn’t been held fully accountable. But I am confident, as are other lawyers even smarter than me when it comes to international enforcement, that this judgment will be collected upon or will be settled sometime in due course, where they will be able to clean up their ancestral lands and save lives. I think this is a historic victory.”

At 52:00 he emphasizes that his being locked up means that they’re winning, that they’ve hurt Chevron.

“We won. I’m locked up because we won. It’s very important that people know that. They want people to look at me and be demoralized. I’m telling you: look at me and don’t be demoralized. We are going to get through this and there’s people in Ecuador, community leaders, who are sophisticated, powerful people. [..] I’m so damned honored to work with them.”

At 54:00 he describes the hubris and arrogance of the U.S. court system, as represented by these Chevron-bought trial judges,

“Judge Kaplan is just a trial judge—a low-level, federal trial judge—who basically issued a ruling, based on false, Chevron, paid [$2 million] witness testimony, that I bribed a judge and he tried to use that to overturn a decision of Ecuador’s highest court, as well as Canada’s supreme court. […] So you have a trial judge trying to overrule a sovereign nation’s supreme court. Can you imagine if an Ecuadorean trial judge tried to do that to the U.S. Supreme Court? That person would be laughed at. […] It’s unbelievable that people actually give it credibility.”

At 57:00 he further discusses the lack of oversight for judges with lifelong appointments.

“I don’t think there should be private prosecutions in the United States. […] There’s no accountability of lifetime-appointed judges. And I think that there needs to be some. Look, most are good judges; they try to work within the framework of the rule of law, in good faith. But if you don’t want to do that—and that’s Judge Kaplan and Judge Prescott, who, in my personal opinion, they’re not doing that, they’re abusing their power to help Chevron and attack me—there’s gotta be some mechanism to hold them accountable. And right now, there’s none. […] If there was a mechanism, I don’t think that this would be happening because they would calculate in their heads, ‘well, I’m not going to be able to do this and get away with it.‘”

At 1:01:30, he contrasts the international and alternative media response with the nearly complete lack of attention by the U.S. mainstream media—especially the New York Times, which is just up the road.

“I’ve got journalists flying thousands of miles in from Europe to interview me and I can’t get the New York Times, which is right up the street—a 30-minute walk from my apartment—to come sit with me and do a story about this. […] No matter what you think of me, no matter what you think of the choices I’ve made, you cannot deny that this is an interesting story. There’s an American lawyer locked up for almost two years on a misdemeanor without trial, who won this big judgment about Chevron. What is going on? That’s a story. Yes, I am frustrated. And none of the networks have covered it.”

I’ve seen and heard him interviewed several times on the podcasts I follow: Chapo TrapHouse, Ralph Nader, Scheer Intelligence, now Useful Idiots. If you follow better news sources, then this has been on your radar all year.

To learn more about the original case, watch the documentary Crude (watched and reviewed in 2012 in Capsule Movie Reviews Vol.2012.9).

Crude: The Real Price of Oil (2009) | FULL DOCUMENTARY [English Subtitles] by History TV (YouTube)

Donziger basically learned Spanish in order to help prosecute this case. He says in this interview, “I’ve been to Ecuador 250 times in 20 years to work on this. […] This was not the work on me or one person.” He’s humble. He gives credit where credit is due. The man is a climate hero. He’s been under house arrest without trial in America for almost two years.