The Chevron Judge Who Knows Little About His Judgment

Chevron (CVX) has labored mightily to undermine a $19 billion pollution verdict imposed on the company in 2011 by a court in Ecuador. The San Ramon( Calif.)-based oil producer has hired armies of lawyers and investigators to prove that the judgment was a fraud and that the New York lawyer who engineered it should be branded a racketeer. Yesterday, Chevron had an opportunity in federal court in Manhattan to interrogate the former Ecuadorian judge who issued the ruling. Turns out he doesn’t know much about it.

Nicolas Zambrano, whose name appeared on the 188-page, single-spaced decision from a provincial court in Lago Agrio, Ecuador, could not recall the name of the chemical substance the ruling described as “the most powerful carcinogenic agent” allegedly associated with oil contamination in the rainforest. He could not identify the study that the decision described as providing “statistical data of the highest importance to delivering this ruling.” He likewise did not recall what legal theory of “causation” the decision relied upon to link oil pollution to ecological and human harm.

Conceding that he does not speak or read French or English, he could not plausibly explain how the ruling he claimed as his own could include legal citations in those languages drawn from French, Australian, and U.S. doctrines. Zambrano said that his secretary, an 18-year-old woman who also, so far as he knew, did not speak or read French or English, found the far-flung legal materials on various websites. “The young woman who would help me type the judgment, she was the one going on the Internet,” Zambrano testified, via a translator. She “chose the Spanish option” on legal websites. “That is how I would become aware or informed of the subject I was interested in. She would print them so I could read them later.”

Chevron called Zambrano as a hostile witness in its civil racketeering lawsuit against Steven Donziger, the New York plaintiffs’ attorney who won the $19 billion verdict on behalf of thousands of Amazonian residents. The oil company alleges that Zambrano did not, in fact, write the February 2011 judgment, but merely signed his name to it as part of an elaborate bribery scheme that called for Donziger’s legal team to kick back $500,000 of its winnings to the judge. Donziger has denied any wrongdoing and claims that Chevron is trying to ruin him and discredit his courtroom victory as a way to evade justice in Ecuador.

Zambrano, who responded to the autumn temperatures in New York by testifying while wearing a long charcoal overcoat, insisted that he spent “many hours, many days” in late 2010 and early 2011 dictating the judgment to his young $15-a-day assistant. “No one has helped me write the judgment,” he said in response to harsh questioning by Chevron’s lead lawyer, Randy Mastro. “I was the one who explicitly drafted it.”

Two weeks ago, one of Zambrano’s former colleagues on the Lago Agrio court, Alberto Guerra, testified that Zambrano paid him to ghostwrite interim rulings in his civil cases, including the pollution suit against Chevron. Guerra also testified that he served as a go-between to negotiate the bribery scheme by which the plaintiffs would draft the final ruling. Zambrano confirmed that Guerra drafted court orders for him in some cases, but not the Chevron case. Testifying with little evident emotion and often pausing for several long seconds before answering questions, Zambrano also denied paying Guerra for his drafting work.

Chevron’s suit against Donziger has received widespread attention in legal circles, where it’s seen as test case for an emerging corporate strategy of going after plaintiffs’ attorneys personally. Yesterday, the clash also received a jolt of celebrity excitement, as actress and producer Trudie Styler attended the court session. She greeted Donziger with a European-style double-cheek kiss. Styler and her husband, British rock star Sting, have long supported the campaign to hold Chevron liable for pollution in Ecuador.

After Zambrano’s testimony, Donziger’s camp hailed his performance. “Mr. Zambrano very clearly stated that he wrote the Lago Agrio judgment and received no help whatsoever from Chevron’s ‘star’ witness, Mr. Guerra,” Chris Gowen, one of Donziger’s lawyers, said via e-mail. Zambrano’s testimony is expected to continue today.

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