Powerful New York Democrats on Capitol Hill have been silent on the attacks in U.S. federal courts against their own constituent, Steven Donziger, a human rights lawyer in a protracted legal battle with the oil company Chevron.
While some progressives lawmakers have spoken out about Donziger’s case, many of the Democratic Party’s power brokers have shied away. Donziger has pointed to Democrats like House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler, of New York, who hasn’t said anything about his case. Several of the prominent Democrats harbor close ties to the law firms defending Chevron: chief among them Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, the corporate firm where Nadler’s son is an associate.
“Jerry Nadler’s silence reflects a sad lack of commitment to human rights protections in the United States of America.”
“Jerry Nadler’s silence reflects a sad lack of commitment to human rights protections in the United States of America,” Donziger told The Intercept. “Worse, it appears to be the result of rank hypocrisy: His son works at the same Chevron law firm that has reaped massive fees for attacking me and trying to ruin my life, which is in and of itself a gross human rights violation.”
Dan Rubin, a spokesperson for Nadler, said the representative’s son has no role in the Donziger case and that Nadler does not comment on ongoing cases. Neither Chevron nor Gibson Dunn responded to requests for comment.
Donziger, an attorney who won a landmark, multibillion-dollar 2011 ruling against Chevron in Ecuadorian courts, is scheduled to be sentenced on Friday in a New York federal court for six charges of criminal contempt of court, all misdemeanors. He faces up to six months in prison after having already spent an unprecedented 787 days, by the day of his sentencing, on house arrest. Federal courts have never before ordered the pretrial detention of a lawyer without a criminal record for a misdemeanor charge.
The sentencing marks another turn in the long saga of Donziger’s court battles with Chevron. The July contempt convictions stem from Donziger’s refusal to obey a judge’s order to turn over his electronic devices to Chevron on the grounds that it would irreversibly violate the rights of his clients, Ecuadorian Indigenous groups and farmers whose Amazonian communities have been polluted by oil drilling.
Rather than pay for the cleanup and damages in Ecuador, Chevron instead hired a battalion of corporate lawyers to go on the counteroffensive and, in its consultants’ own words, “demonize” Donziger.
In 2014, Chevron convinced a federal judge in New York to take the controversial step of invalidating the 2011 ruling from an Ecuadorian court based on their argument that Donziger rigged the outcome through racketeering, extortion, wire fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering. The key witness against Donziger has publicly retracted his testimony and Donziger, for his part, denies the accusations, arguing that judges in this case and his contempt hearing are both biased by their own ties to Chevron.
The support from House progressives came in April, when six members, led by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., requested that Attorney General Merrick Garland review the proceedings. “We have deep concerns that the unprecedented nature of Mr. Donziger’s pending legal case is tied to his previous work against Chevron,” read the letter also signed by Reps. Cori Bush, D-Mo.; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.; and Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., among others. “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.”
Five months later, Garland has not responded, McGovern’s office told The Intercept. The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.
Nadler — Donziger’s own representative — was notably absent.
Nadler had been approached multiple times to lend support to a review of the case against Donziger, said two sources with knowledge of the entreaties, who asked for anonymity because they were not permitted to speak about the dealings. Donziger and his allies have repeatedly attempted to convince Nadler to investigate the case. Last September, Donziger sent an open letter to Nadler backed by 24,000 signatures from concerned citizens but did not receive a response.
Nadler’s son, Michael, joined Gibson Dunn, the main firm representing Chevron, as an associate attorney in 2018 and has represented extractive industry clients like the Rio Tinto mining firm for its operations in Mozambique. Human Rights Watch has published a 130-page report on how Rio Tinto has contributed to food insecurity, poverty, and water shortages among communities it had resettled for its mines.
Throughout the senior Nadler’s congressional career, lawyers and law firms have been his top campaign funders, according to the watchdog Open Secrets. He has received over $2 million in donations from lawyers and law firms, including $85,650 from Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy LLP, one of dozens of firms hired by Chevron on the Donziger case. Nadler has also received campaign donations from three Gibson Dunn partners totaling $4,750.
Rubin, the Nadler spokesperson, said, “Federal criminal cases should be free of political influence. Because Congressman Nadler chairs the House Judiciary Committee, which has direct responsibility for the Department of Justice, he does not comment on the merits of any active prosecution, including that of Mr. Donzinger [sic].”
In January, Nadler appeared to break his own rule by urging the Justice Department to move aggressively in the open cases of the January 6 Capitol rioters in a statement co-signed with other committee chairs.
Tough to Rally Support
Paul Paz y Miño, an associate director at the nonprofit Amazon Watch who has closely followed the Chevron cases for over a decade and has advocated on Donziger’s behalf, said that it’s been extremely difficult to get members of Congress to speak up.
“It’s a heavy lift to overcome the amount of mud and dirt that Chevron has spent millions of dollars to throw on top of Donziger,” Paz y Miño told The Intercept. “Some members of Congress immediately backed off and we know that Chevron had their lobbyists on the Hill trying to counter the work that we were doing.”
“It kind of blew my mind that Jerry Nadler’s office refused to even respond to anything.”
“It kind of blew my mind that Jerry Nadler’s office refused to even respond to anything,” said Paz y Miño, who believes that Nadler’s position has discouraged other members of Congress who have expressed interest in Donziger’s case. “The first question they often ask is, ‘Well, who’s their actual rep?’ And then the answer is, ‘Oh, it’s Nadler,’ and it would die pretty much right there,” he said.
Donziger and his allies have also lobbied his two senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, to speak out on his behalf, but they have not done so. Neither office responded to requests for comment.
Prior to running for Congress, Gillibrand was a partner at Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, which would later work on behalf of Chevron in the case against Donziger. Like Nadler, Gillibrand’s top donors are lawyers, who have given her $8.8 million. She and her PAC, Off the Sidelines, have received over $190,000 in donations from Gibson Dunn. At least five other corporate law firms that have worked for Chevron are among her top all-time donors.
Schumer has received nearly $10 million in donations from the legal industry, including at least $1 million from Chevron-linked law firms — $61,255 of which came from Gibson Dunn.
Correction: October 7, 2021
An earlier version of this story misstated the total donation figures from Gibson Dunn to Gillibrand and Schumer.