By Sara Randazzo 

Steven Donziger once stood to gain hundreds of millions of dollars for winning a $9.5 billion environmental-contamination verdict against Chevron Corp. in Ecuador.

Now, that judgment has been discredited, Mr. Donziger has lost his New York law license, and he is on trial for criminal charges that he flouted a judge's orders.

The contempt-of-court trial that started Monday before U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska is the latest twist in a legal saga involving Chevron and Mr. Donziger that has lasted nearly three decades and spanned the globe.

Mr. Donziger first sued Chevron predecessor Texaco Inc. in New York in 1993 on behalf of native Ecuadoreans who alleged the company's oil operations in the Amazon were sickening them. The dispute later moved to Ecuador, where a judge in 2011 issued the $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron.

The San Ramon, Calif.-based oil company has spent the past decade punching back, securing a U.S. court decision finding that Mr. Donziger and his colleagues corrupted the legal process in Ecuador by manufacturing evidence, pressuring judges and ultimately ghost writing the final judgment in the case.

Those conclusions came in a 2014 ruling by U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan that also ordered Mr. Donziger to relinquish his 6.3% contingency fee interest in the case to Chevron and forbade him from profiting from the Ecuador judgment or trying to enforce it in the U.S.

Mr. Donziger is now going to trial over his alleged refusal to abide by those orders, and for not complying with Judge Kaplan's order to turn over all of his email accounts and electronic devices to a forensic expert for Chevron's eventual use. Judge Kaplan found him in civil contempt of court after Chevron repeatedly told the judge of instances the company said showed he was still profiting from his fraud. Judge Kaplan later brought charges of criminal contempt after Mr. Donziger's continued refusal to follow the directives.

Mr. Donziger, 59 years old, has been under home confinement in his apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side since Judge Kaplan called for the criminal contempt trial in August 2019. An ankle bracelet tracks his every move, and he is unable to leave his home without court permission. His contempt trial has been delayed repeatedly, both by the coronavirus pandemic and requests by Mr. Donziger to hire new lawyers.

The Manhattan U.S. attorney's office declined to prosecute Mr. Donziger, saying it didn't have the resources. Judge Kaplan named Rita Glavin, a white-collar lawyer, to prosecute Mr. Donziger instead.

Mr. Donziger has accused the court and Ms. Glavin of vindictive and selective prosecution, claims Judge Preska ruled last week were completely unfounded.

"Mr. Donziger's speculation that the universe is conspiring against him is not a basis for compelling disclosure," Judge Preska has written twice in rejecting his requests to probe into ties between the court, prosecution and Chevron.

Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, which represented Chevron in the racketeering lawsuit against Mr. Donziger, said in a recent filing that his requests for documents from the firm were based on "delusional conspiracy theories." Chevron isn't a party in the criminal contempt trial.

The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March denied Mr. Donziger's request to lift his home confinement, upholding Judge Preska's determination that his deep ties to Ecuador made him a flight risk.

Mr. Donziger, who denies he acted fraudulently in Ecuador, has used the home confinement and criminal trial to rally activists and celebrities to support him. A group of Nobel Laureates wrote a letter calling for his release from home confinement. Members of Congress including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D., Mass.), a college classmate of Mr. Donziger's, wrote a letter last month to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland asking him to review the case.

During oral arguments in March in front of the Second Circuit, an attorney for Mr. Donziger said it would be illogical for his client to flee for a life in exile, when the harshest sentence for a misdemeanor contempt conviction would be six months in prison.

"It is insane to think a man who has fought at every single turn is suddenly going to run for the hills," the lawyer, Scott Badenoch, said.

Ms. Glavin disagreed, saying Mr. Donziger hadn't shown himself to be trustworthy. "This is a very unique case," she told the appellate court. "I haven't seen anything like it. I certainly hope I don't again."

Write to Sara Randazzo at sara.randazzo@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 10, 2021 12:42 ET (16:42 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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