UPDATED: A federal judge gave Chevron and a private investigator a reprieve for a few days in the investigator’s effort to keep from being questioned by Eucuador about alleged judicial corruption in an $18 billion judgment against Chevron. This long-running case includes the makings of a movie with big oil, big dollars, a South American government, spy cameras and alleged judicial corruption.
Equador wants to question the Northern California investigator, Eric Mason, about his alleged dealings with one of two men who say an Equadorian judge may have asked for bribes to rule against Chevron in an environmental case. Equador wants to know if Mason had any role in getting Hansen to leave the U.S. during the corruption investigation, something Mason’s lawyer George Niespolo hotly contests, calling the allegation “scurrilous.”
An appeals court in Equador is considering the corruption claims now and whether to throw out the $18 billion judgment against the oil company. There is plenty of action in lots of courts, but first a little background in this tangled web.
This all began 28 years ago with a federal lawsuit in New York by indigenous citizens of Ecuador who accused Texaco, Inc., (subsequently taken over by Chevron) of liability for having polluted their land and caused environmental injury while operating wells in the Amazon from 1964 to 1992.
The case eventually went to an Equadorian court, at Chevron’s insistance, and resulted in seven years of environmental proceedings in Lago Agrio, Equador, near the site of the alleged damage. Meanwhile, Chevron also filed an international treaty claim challenging the case as unfair.
Chevron ultimately lost the trial in Equador and was hit with an $18 billion judgment. But Chevron publicly alleged the judge who presided over the Lago Agrio litigation had demanded bribes, or that the Equadorian government interfered in the case.
This is where Diego Borja enters. Borja and Hansen allegedly surreptitiously videotaped meetings “using spy cameras purchased through a Sky Mall catalogue.” The Borja’s tapes form the basis of Chevron’s allegations that the judge demanded bribes and ruled against Chevron.
But Borja and Hansen’s role in the case, their relation to Chevron, and other questions are being asked by Equador. Equador wants access to 3,000 documents Borja claims are protected from use by attorney-client and other privileges against disclosure. Right now Equador wants to question Mason, hired by prominent San Francisco defense lawyer Cris Arguedas to look for Borja documents related to the corruption inquiry. She told U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer she sent Mason to try to find Hansen but, she says, Mason never made contact with Hansen so Equador has no reason to subpoena him.
Lapping argued in court papers that while the Republic “cannot point to a single document” showing Mason, Borja or Chevron intended to hussle Hansen out of the country, it seemed odd to them that Hansen, who was born and raised in the U.S. and has a home and family in California, suddenly decided to leave. The entry explaining the quick departure is blacked-out in court documents.
Arguedas was adamant that Mason did nothing to encourage Hansen to leave the U.S. “I want the record to reflect, there is no evidence my investigator made contact with Hansen, or told him to go anywhere,” she said. The implication “is preposterous,” she said.
The question Breyer has to sort out is whether any of the documents wanted by Equador and anything Mason may be asked to talk about is privileged, meaning it is secret work product of Chevron’s efforts to investigate alleged judicial corruption.
An attempt by Niespolo and Equador’s lawyer, Richard A. Lapping, to work out a deal during a break in proceedings failed so Breyer told both sides to file more papers by the end of the week on the privilege issue.
The hearing had the potential for the theatrical. Chevron Corp. has asked prior to the hearing for the chance to play selected unused footage from the movie “Crude.” Ultimately, the tapes were never played.
Chevron continues to fight to overturn the Equador judgment through a separate international treaty challenge.
Case: In re application of: The Republic of Equador, C10-80225