A U.S. federal court has sanctioned Chevron and its lawyers at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher for abusive questioning during a deposition related to the oil giant's multi-billion dollar liability in Ecuador for environmental contamination, according to court papers made available today.
The questioning that led to the sanctions was conducted by Andrea Neuman, one of Chevron's lead lawyers on the Ecuador matter and a partner at Gibson Dunn's office in Irvine, CA.
Neuman is the fourth Chevron lawyer to be sanctioned recently in the Ecuador matter. Separately, two Chevron employees are under criminal indictment in the South American nation for lying about the results of a purported environmental remediation that Chevron is using as a defense to the civil lawsuit over the contamination, which affects an area the size of Rhode Island.
Dozens of indigenous and farmer communities in Ecuador are suing the oil giant for deliberately dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste into Ecuador's Amazon region when it operated a large oil concession from 1964 to 1990. The contamination – which includes more than 900 abandoned toxic waste pits – has plunged the region into a public health crisis that threatens thousands of people with cancer and other oil-related diseases, according to evidence before the court.
In the brief seeking the sanctions, the Amazon communities accused Neuman of using "blatant intimidation tactics" that "fall below the standards of professional conduct" required by Colorado and Federal rules in Colorado. The questioning occurred when Neuman deposed an American technical expert for the plaintiffs on Oct. 6 in Denver.
In a decision dated November 15, Magistrate Judge Michael E. Hegarty ordered Neuman and her colleagues at Gibson Dunn to refrain from asking questions in depositions involving the witnesses' knowledge of criminal law statutes. Gibson Dunn is trying to characterize the expert work in Ecuador as fraudulent, a charge the Amazonian communities reject.
"This court in Colorado was willing to stand up to Gibson Dunn's bullying and abusive tactics," said Pablo Fajardo, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Ecuador trial. "Chevron is using these tactics as part of its campaign to cover up its own fraud and wrongdoing in Ecuador."
Just days ago a trial judge in Ecuador increased the fine for two Chevron lawyers found to be obstructing the trial.
Alberto Racines and Diego Larrea, both of whom have worked on Chevron's legal team in Ecuador since the trial against Chevron began in 2003, were fined approximately $1,600 by Judge Nicolas Zambrano for repeatedly filing the same motions to delay the seven-year case.
In 2009, a third Chevron lawyer in Ecuador – Patricio Campuzano – was sanctioned for the same reason.
On August 5 – one day after the Ecuador court ordered both parties to submit their own damages assessments – Chevron filed 19 motions to nullify the order or the trial itself in a 30-minute period. Racines and Larrea then cited the failure of the trial judge to quickly rule on each of the motions as a basis to recuse him.
Just last week, Chevron's Ecuador lawyers filed a long affidavit in court from a U.S. technical expert that was signed in 2004, one year after the trial began in Ecuador. Chevron then asked the judge to appoint a translator though Chevron generally provides its own translations of documents.
Chevron, which operated several oil fields in Ecuador from 1964 to 1990, faces damages and clean-up costs of up to $113 billion. The amount includes compensation for an estimated 10,000 potential deaths from cancer in the coming decades, according to reports submitted to the court by a team of prominent American technical experts.
Chevron bought Texaco (which owned the Ecuador operation) in 2001 for $31 billion, apparently without adequately vetting the company for the Ecuador environmental liability, said Fajardo.
The lawsuit against Chevron, originally filed in U.S. federal court in 1993 but moved to Ecuador in 2002 at Chevron's request, accuses the oil giant of poisoning an area of rainforest that is home to five indigenous groups and thousands of farmers.
The two Chevron employees under indictment in Ecuador, Rodrigo Perez Pallares and Ricardo Reis Veiga, have a preliminary hearing on their case scheduled for January 5, 2011 in Quito. Both are accused of defrauding Ecuador's government by signing false documents certifying a sham cleanup in the mid-1990s.