Judicial Mayhem in Chevron's Pollution Case

Judge Nicolas Zambrano shows the lawsuit files at his office in the Lago Agrio Courthouse on Jan. 25, 2011 Photograph by Guillermo Granja/Reuters/Landov

Having used up all literary metaphors for the intricate weirdness of the epic oil-pollution judgment against Chevron in Ecuador, let’s stick to the briefest possible account of the latest developments. First, the mandatory background:

According to the Ecuadorian courts, the San Ramon (Calif.)-based energy giant owes rain-forest residents $19 billion as compensation and punitive damages related to contamination left behind in the 1970s and ’80s by Texaco, which Chevron acquired in 2001.

Chevron counters that the trial which produced the monster judgment in February 2011 was shot through with fabricated evidence, illicit payments, and, ultimately, a ghostwritten court ruling, possibly drafted by the plaintiffs’ legal team. Steven Donziger, the flamboyant New York lawyer Chevron has portrayed as the mastermind of this conspiracy, has denied wrongdoing.

Now, the news: The former Ecuadorian judge accused of affixing his name to the pro-plaintiff judgment against Chevron that someone else wrote has stepped forward to deny that allegation. In a sworn declaration dated March 28 in Quito, Nicolas Augusto Zambrano Lozada said that, contrary to the oil company’s contentions, he did not pay another former judge to draft interim rulings in the case favoring the plaintiffs, and he did not solicit a $500,000 bribe to allow the plaintiffs to ghostwrite the 188-page final judgment.

“I am the only author of the judgment that I issued February 14, 2011,” Zambrano said. “Since it was a complex and enormous case,” he added, “I spent many hours working on the case, especially at night.”

Zambrano, who has been removed as a judge because of alleged corruption in unrelated drug-trafficking cases, did not stop there, however. He addressed another of Chevron’s assertions: that some 60 pages of the February 2011 judgment contain verbatim passages drawn from internal memos written by the plaintiffs but never filed with the Ecuadorian court.

In his declaration, Zambrano said that “occasionally, documents related to the case that were not incorporated in the process were left at the door to my office at the court.” Did he ignore these uninvited missives as improper attempts to influence him? No. “I verified all of that information regarding the case,” he explained. “That is to say, I made sure that it was not false information and also that the basis for such information is in the record. This was relevant information that, as I read it, I realized could be of use in my decision.”

Whoa. A judge denies that he allowed others to do his work, but then admits that he incorporated into a multibillion-dollar judgment information left by litigants on his office doorstep?

Zambrano noted in his declaration that “some folders” he discovered “indicated that they were courtesy of Chevron.” Presumably other folders were courtesy of the plaintiffs. In any event, Zambrano does not deny that the sweeping anti-Chevron verdict contains material lifted from the plaintiffs’ private files.

So the case, which began two decades ago, continues. Unable to enforce their $19 billion judgment in Ecuador, where Chevron has no assets to speak of, the plaintiffs are trying to get courts in Argentina, Brazil, and Canada to allow the seizure of company assets in those countries. Chevron is fighting those ancillary suits tooth and nail.

Meanwhile in New York, the company has sued Donziger and his Ecuadorian clients under the U.S. civil racketeering law. A trial is scheduled for October. More strangeness doubtless will ensue. At some point, it would be nice if, apart from the haze of judicial mayhem in Ecuador, the rogue oil on the ground got cleaned up.

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