Film outtakes steal stage in Chevron Ecuador case
* Chevron subpoenas film clips, says they show misconduct *
Plaintiffs mull pressure tactics in documentary outtakes *
Amazon court seen ruling later this year in $27 bln case
By Hugh Bronstein QUITO, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Outtakes from a documentary meant to help the cause of Ecuadorean farmers suing U.S. energy giant Chevron Corp could become a liability for their case as a decision nears in the environmental damages lawsuit.
The 2009 documentary film "Crude" was made with the cooperation of New York-based lawyer Steven Donziger, who has scaled back his role in representing the plaintiffs after outtakes from the film showed him in Ecuador discussing tactics to pressure a local judge into ruling in their favor. At one point he muses about paying protesters to surround the courthouse in the Amazon town of Lago Agrio where the case is being heard. "There are almost no rules here," he says at another point. "This is how the game is played. It's dirty."
Chevron says the outtakes show enough misconduct by the plaintiffs to render any judgment against it illegitimate. The clips, which did not appear in the final version of the film, were subpoenaed as part of actions brought by Chevron in U.S. federal courts meant to block the plaintiffs from seizing assets should the Lago Agrio court decide against the company. Reporters in Ecuador have just recently been able to view them. "We need to do more politically, to control the court, to pressure the court," Donziger says on one clip. "We believe they make decisions based on who they fear the most, not based on what the law should dictate. So what we want to do is take over the court with a massive protest." "We want to send a message to the court to not fuck with us. Not now, not later and not ever," says Donziger, who helped originate the case against Chevron in 1993.
Several U.S. judges have registered alarm over the outtakes, which could complicate plaintiffs' efforts at seizing assets to collect any reward granted by the Lago Agrio court. Donziger, 48, who attended Harvard Law School at the same time as U.S. President Barack Obama, declined to speak on the record. But Karen Hinton, a Washington-based spokeswoman for the plaintiffs, said the outtakes "are nothing more than a sideshow to distract from Chevron's intentional contamination of the rain forest." She said the rally to pressure the court never took place.
Indigenous tribe members and local subsistence farmers say Texaco wrecked a wide swath of Ecuador's eastern Amazon region in the 1970s and '80s by dumping drilling waste into unlined pits and leaving them to fester, a charge the company denies. Chevron inherited the case when it bought Texaco in 2001. It says the company cleaned up all the waste pits it was responsible for and that it no longer has property in Ecuador.
In one outtake from the documentary, a Donziger dinner companion says the judge might be killed, presumably by irate local residents, if he were to rule for Chevron. Donziger replies: "He thinks he will be, which is just as good." The plaintiffs say that while his comments may have been inappropriate, they do not amount to a violation of law. "The outtakes show longtime colleagues making jokes, exaggerating for effect and offering stray personal opinions in freewheeling, brainstorming sessions that are of no legal significance," Hinton said. "He clearly was hamming it up."
Investors and the petroleum industry are watching to see if Chevron will ultimately have to pay massive damages, setting a precedent that could support more big lawsuits against oil companies accused of polluting other countries. The case also highlights the risks of doing business in Ecuador, where leftist President Rafael Correa often feuds with the private sector and has publicly sided with the plaintiffs.
Chevron says the trial in Lago Agrio has been prejudiced by government interference, misconduct on the part of Donziger and collusion between plaintiffs' lawyers and a court-appointed expert who said environmental damages amounted to $27 billion. The plaintiffs deny the accusations. In December, the court closed the evidentiary phase of the trial, setting the stage for a verdict in the months ahead. If the decision goes against Chevron, the company says it would appeal and fight enforcement.
As Donziger cuts back his role in the case, Hinton said the plaintiffs have hired Washington law firm Patton Boggs to help them try to seize Chevron assets -- which could happen in any of the dozens of countries where the company has operations -- should the Lago Agrio ruling go their way.
A previous judge stepped down from hearing the lawsuit after he was recorded discussing the case with a couple of shadowy figures who secretly videotaped him with cameras hidden inside a wristwatch and a pen. The plaintiffs, suspecting that the two men made the recordings as part of a dirty tricks campaign for Chevron, recently tried to subpoena them in their California homes. But they had moved without leaving forwarding addresses. (Editing by Daniel Wallis and Cynthia Osterman)