U.S. Representatives to DOJ: Intervene in Case Against Donziger, Lawyer Who Helped Win Historic $9.5 Billion Judgment Against Chevron

U.S. congresspeople express deep concern that corporations are aiding the criminalization of attorneys working to secure justice for human rights violations and the environment 

Amazon Watch

For more information, contact:

Paul Paz y Miño at paz@amazonwatch.org or +1.510.773.4635
Andrew Miller at andrew@amazonwatch.org or +1.202.423.4828

Full text of letter here (PDF)

Washington, DC – Today Representatives McGovern, Bush, Bowman, Tlaib, Raskin, and Ocasio-Cortez sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the Department of Justice to conduct a "thorough review of the legal case involving human rights lawyer Steven Donziger…his work is an important contribution in ensuring that Black, brown, and Indigenous communities across the world are represented in our legal systems." Donziger faces a criminal trial date on May 10, 2021.

"Too often Indigenous and frontline communities are denied the justice they deserve after racist fossil fuel pollution and corporate violence put their lives and livelihoods at risk," said Congresswoman Cori Bush. "Steven Donziger's successful lawsuit on behalf of Indigenous communities in Ecuador was a remarkable exception. His bravery and brilliance will inspire others to fight back against corporate power. Chevron's subsequent attacks on him are a threat to safety, justice, and accountability."

Chevron's efforts to silence Donziger have gone from the extreme to outright absurd as a private law firm with ties to the oil company itself has been appointed to criminally prosecute him for contempt of court. The company's tactics have actually backfired and revitalized an international movement in support of justice in Ecuador, including members of the U.S. Congress. Donziger, a lawyer who was key in winning one of the largest and most important environmental cases in history, has sat under home confinement for over 620 days on petty misdemeanor charges in a clear example that the rights of all those who stand up to big oil in the U.S. are at risk.

"For decades, Chevron deliberately discharged billions of gallons of toxic waste into some of the most vulnerable and fragile ecosystems on the planet, subjecting nearby Indigenous communities to poisonous and deadly carcinogens. Steven Donziger helped expose Chevron and hold them accountable, fighting to protect the rights of Indigenous people against corporate greed and corruption... I'm deeply troubled by the unprecedented and unjust legal assault Mr. Donziger has faced, which appears designed to intimidate and stifle those who seek to hold polluters like Chevron accountable." said Representative Jim McGovern who has visited the site of Chevron's contamination personally.

"The fight against corporate power and greed is one of the key environmental and economic justice challenges facing our planet," said Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. "Indigenous Amazon communities won one of the most important class-action lawsuits ever, holding Chevron accountable for environmental devastation with nearly $10 billion in damages, and ever since Chevron has sought to use its money and power to illegitimately nullify this result."

"Chevron has gone to such outrageous extremes to silence Donziger, bringing about the last thing they ever wanted: U.S. officials speaking out about their contamination in the Amazon. Chevron's entire strategy has been to try to turn the focus away from their admitted crimes to focus on Donziger and one ex-tobacco industry lawyer turned federal trial judge – Lewis Kaplan. Their hope is that the systemic racism entrenched in the U.S. judicial system will help to invalidate the opinions of 17 judges and the highest courts in Ecuador, not to mention the Indigenous and other Amazonian inhabitants themselves. I am so pleased that Representatives McGovern, Bush, Bowman, Tlaib, Raskin, and Ocasio-Cortez have sent this letter because it will do immense damage to Chevron's attempt to escape justice. Their awareness of what communities of color have suffered at the hands of corporate power in America and their ability to take action against a corporate behemoth such as Chevron, will make a significant difference for the people of the Amazon," said Paul Paz y Miño, Amazon Watch's Associate Director.

As the progressive members of Congress continued in their letter:

This case infringes on Mr. Donziger's ability to practice law, to represent his clients, and to pursue the fundamental rule of law on which our country is built. Mr. Donziger has been subjected to an unprecedented 600+ days of pre-trial house arrest while awaiting trial on a petty misdemeanor charge resulting from a discovery dispute. We are unaware of such restriction having been imposed on any lawyer in the United States facing a similar allegation.

We have deep concerns that the unprecedented nature of Mr. Donziger's pending legal case is tied to his previous work against Chevron. It is vital that attorneys working on behalf of victims of human rights violations and negative environmental impacts of corporations not become criminalized for their work. If these restrictions are permitted, advocates across this country will feel as though tactics of intimidation can succeed in stifling robust representation. The results of this case will have a lasting impact in the legal practice, suggesting that representation and advocacy can then impede one's ability to exercise fundamental protections.

This case involved urgent environmental justice concerns of Indigenous people. As you may be aware, Indigenous people of the Amazon basin have long been subjected to deadly, carcinogenic waste from oil and gas production in one of the world's most fragile and irreplaceable regions. Mr. Donziger filed a successful class-action lawsuit in Ecuador on their behalf, as well as affected campesino communities, which resulted in a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron.

Long-time ally of the campaign for justice in Ecuador, actor Alec Baldwin added, "The courts chosen by Chevron in Ecuador have told the oil company 'You owe nine and a half-billion dollars to clean up.' However, after spending millions in legal fees thus far, they haven't even spent nine and a half dollars on any remediation of this catastrophe. When will Chevron promise to begin remediation of its 16 billion gallons of toxic oil waste in the Ecuadorian Amazon? This isn't just about a lawyer from New York and a relatively small band of Indigenous people in Ecuador. The entire world is outraged and is looking at this case and they want to know – when does Chevron intend to fix this? That is the only issue that matters."


The letter by U.S. representatives follows a similar letter sent on February 16, 2021, by Amazon Watch, Amnesty International USA, Global Witness, and 10 other human rights and environmental organizations to review the unethical tactics Chevron has used to avoid paying an Ecuadorian court judgment, specifically by targeting Mr. Donziger, who played a major role in organizing the international team that brought and won the case.

Chevron admitted to deliberately dumping over 16 billion gallons of toxic oil waste into the Amazon rainforest as a cost-saving measure over the course of decades while operating under its Texaco brand from 1964 to 1992. The company was found liable in 2011 by a court in Ecuador for $9.5 billion, and although 17 appellate judges in Ecuador, including its entire Supreme Court and Constitutional Courts, upheld the decision, Chevron has refused to pay for the clean-up. Close to 1000 open-air unlined waste pits remain, covering an area the size of Rhode Island and poisoning the drinking water of tens of thousands of people every single day.

As part of Chevron's retaliation against those who won the Ecuadorian judgment, the oil giant has employed the law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher to work to undermine the judgment through its infamous "kill step" process which amounted to a vicious SLAPP (Strategic lawsuit against public participation) suit using RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) to attack Donziger and deny justice to the people of Ecuador by preventing them from seeking enforcement in the United States. Chevron's efforts to "demonize Donziger" as revealed from their own internal communication, and silence the Ecuadorians by use of RICO, creates a chilling effect and dangerous precedent for any community of color seeking justice for human rights violations and environmental contamination. In this case, the U.S. judiciary has been complicit in a process attempting to wipe away the suffering of tens of thousands of people at the hands of one of the largest corporations in the U.S.


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