Journalist Exposes How Private Investigation Firm Hired by Chevron Tried to Recruit Her as a Spy to Undermine $27B Suit in Ecuadorian Amazon

Monday, August 16, 2010

An expose in The Atlantic magazine reveals how one of the world’s largest private investigation firms, Kroll, hired by oil giant Chevron, tried to recruit an American journalist to undermine a massive $27 billion lawsuit against Chevron brought by the residents of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

We speak with the journalist, Mary Cuddehe, and with Han Shan, the coordinator for Amazon Watch’s Clean Up Ecuador campaign.[includes rush transcript–partial] Guests: Mary Cuddehe, independent journalist. Her article in The Atlantic is A Spy in the Jungle Han Shan, coordinator for Amazon Watch’s Clean Up Ecuador campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today with a new twist in the seventeen-year-old legal battle between oil giant Chevron and the residents of the Ecuadorian Amazon, who say decades of reckless oil drilling have taken a deadly toll on their health and their environment. They accuse Texaco, now Chevron, of dumping over 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into the rainforest, and Chevron now faces a $27.3 billion lawsuit. An article in the latest issue of The Atlantic magazine reveals how a private investigation firm, hired by Chevron, tried to recruit an American journalist to undermine the high-profile lawsuit. According to the first-person account of Mary Cuddehe, the investigative firm Kroll flew her to Colombia and offered her $20,000 to spend six weeks in Lago Agrio, the jungle town in Ecuador where the trial is being held.

They wanted her to say she was an independent journalist, while spying for Chevron, and find out if the plaintiffs in the lawsuit had "rigged" a health study that found the community suffered abnormally high cancer rates. But Mary Cuddehe said no. She refused the offer to become a corporate spy. The article is called "A Spy in the Jungle," and Cuddehe writes, quote, "There was a reason they wanted me. With one Google search, anyone could see that I was, in fact, a journalist. If I went to Lago Agrio as myself and pretended to write a story, no one would suspect that the starry-eyed young American poking around was actually shilling for Chevron."

Well, we invited Chevron to come on the program, but they declined. Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson did, however, not directly address Mary Cuddehe’s claims, but acknowledged hiring Kroll. Robertson said in a statement to Democracy Now! that, quote, "It should come as no surprise that we have hired an outside investigative firm to help document the fraud being perpetrated by the plaintiffs’ lawyers and their associates in this case. There are now numerous documented examples of falsified expert reports, fraudulent evidence, unsubstantiated health claims and collusion with court experts," he wrote. Well, Mary Cuddehe is based in Mexico City. She joins me now via Democracy Now! video stream. We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Mary Cuddehe.

MARY CUDDEHE: Thanks. It’s good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined in the studios in San Francisco by Han Shan, coordinator of the Clean Up Ecuador campaign at Amazon Watch. But Mary, let’s begin with you. Why don’t you explain what happened, how you were approached by, well, Kroll, hired by Chevron?

MARY CUDDEHE: Right. Well, you know, as I wrote in my story, I was in Cancún. I’m a freelance reporter, and I was in Cancún working on another story. And, you know, it was kind of the typical thing where I was writing for a magazine that has a low budget, and, you know, I seemed like I was barely going to break even on the story, and I was sort of despairing about the state of journalism. And then I got this phone call. You know, it was kind of like magic.

And I found out about this job. And so, I went back to Mexico City, and I got in touch with someone from Kroll. And they didn’t want to speak too much over the phone, so they offered to fly me out to Bogotá for the weekend. And so, I was—I showed up at this, you know, kind of luxury hotel and spent a weekend being briefed on the case. And that was how I first found out about the job.

AMY GOODMAN: Who spoke to you? What did they say?

MARY CUDDEHE: Well, they told me about—they spoke about the details of the case. I mean, they gave me the background. You know, when I first found out about it, I knew almost nothing. I basically went to Bogotá sight unseen. And, you know, they just kind of briefed me on the background of the case, and they told me what they would want me to do.

AMY GOODMAN: And what exactly did they tell you?

MARY CUDDEHE: They told me—everything that’s in my story is basically, you know, what I was told. I was told about this health study that Chevron suspected had been done, that there was fraud in this health study, and they wanted me to go down to Lago Agrio and kind of investigate who had done the interviews and whether there had been collusion between the Spanish human rights activists who had conducted the health study and the plaintiffs in that study.

AMY GOODMAN: And you were to say you were who?

MARY CUDDEHE: I was to say that I was myself. And that was ultimately the reason that I couldn’t do it. You know, I didn’t think that I was being asked to do anything illegal at any point. I just felt that if I went down to Lago Agrio and was, you know, investigating, doing an investigation for Chevron, and, you know, acting as a journalist, I felt that I was walking into territory, as a journalist, I wouldn’t be able to come back from. And that was ultimately why I had to say no.

AMY GOODMAN: The person who recruited you, Mary, you called him "Sam" in the piece?

MARY CUDDEHE: I did.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us who he was and how he identified with you.

MARY CUDDEHE: Well, you know, it’s—I—he—as I wrote in the story, you know, the people that I met from Kroll were very friendly and upfront, and we kind of all got along. They were very nice, and, you know, we went out to dinner. We went dancing the first night I was there. And it was a kind of, you know, very kind of warm and welcoming atmosphere. And, you know, I didn’t feel at any time that I was being—I wasn’t being lied to, or, you know, nothing like that happened. I felt that they were totally upfront with me. But that was pretty much the extent of it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Mary Cuddehe, the American journalist who was approached by Kroll—actually, Mary, tell us the significance of Kroll, what Kroll is.

MARY CUDDEHE: Well, Kroll bills itself as a risk management company, and I think that it’s a company—it has, you know, offices all over the world. And at least in the capacity that I was going to be working for them, they do—it was going to be as a private investigator.

AMY GOODMAN: And were they very clear on exactly how they wanted you to identify yourself when you went down?

MARY CUDDEHE: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: What did they say exactly?

MARY CUDDEHE: Well, I would be—and, you know, these were kind of, you know, preliminary talks, so—but I was going to go down there and be myself, you know, and just say that I was a reporter and, you know, just kind of ask questions and do the investigation under that premise.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you meet anyone there, or did they tell you about anyone, who’s doing what they were asking you to do?

MARY CUDDEHE: No.

AMY GOODMAN: So you would be their first spy posing as a journalist?

MARY CUDDEHE: As far as I know, yes. And I—

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s—go ahead, Mary.

MARY CUDDEHE: I did want to mention, you know, I noticed the way that the plantiffs’ attorneys have kind of seized on my story. And, you know, I didn’t believe that I was asked to do anything illegal. And I mention that because it was a tough decision to make, honestly, because $20,000 is a lot of money for someone in my position, and it did seem like an interesting case. But, you know, ultimately, I had to say no, because I just didn’t feel that as a journalist it was something that I could do, ethically, and then return to journalism.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Sam, as you described him, the person who was your contact, said, "There is no other Mary Cuddehe. If you don’t do this job, we’ll have to find another way." What does that mean?

MARY CUDDEHE: It’s unclear.

AMY GOODMAN: What has been Chevron and Kroll’s response to your piece in The Atlantic, "A Spy in the Jungle."

MARY CUDDEHE: I’ve had no response. There’s been no—as far as I know, the response that you just read is the first that I’ve heard from Chevron or Kroll.

AMY GOODMAN: Mary Cuddehe, anything else you would like to add on this case and your reflections on it since they asked you to work for them, for Kroll, working for Chevron, in the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador?

MARY CUDDEHE: Well, you know, it was interesting. You know, I was—the story that was published in The Atlantic was originally a proposal. And, you know, I wanted to go down to Ecuador and actually do the investigation myself. You know, I felt that that was the way that I could kind of have the best of both worlds. I could still good down to Ecuador and still—and be a journalist and, you know, do the investigation transparently. And so, you know, I sent this proposal to The Atlantic, and they came back and said, you know, "You might see this as a proposal, but we see this as a story." And so, at that point, I just said, "OK, you know, let’s publish it." And, you know, obviously, it’s not in the cards for me to go down there right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Mary Cuddehe, thanks for joining us. She’s an American journalist living in Mexico City. Her piece in The Atlantic is called "A Spy in the Jungle." When we come back, we’ll talk to Han Shan, the coordinator of the Clean Up Ecuador campaign at Amazon Watch. Stay with us.


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