This week, after nearly 1,000 days of arbitrary detention, the environmental and human rights lawyer Steven Donziger was released from house arrest. On this week’s podcast, Donziger talks to Intercept investigative reporter Sharon Lerner and Ryan Grim about his decadelong legal battle with Chevron over land contamination in Ecuador.
[Deconstructed theme music.]
Sharon Lerner: This week on Deconstructed, I’m Sharon Lerner, investigative reporter for The Intercept, sitting in for Ryan Grim.
Our guest this week is Steven Donziger, the environmental lawyer who sued Chevron and won. Donziger helped win a multi-billion dollar judgment against the company for the contamination of land in Ecuador. Specifically, the Lago Agrio region where he’s been fighting on behalf of Indigenous people and farmers for more than 25 years.
As Donziger was arguing the case against Chevron in Ecuador back in 2009, the company said its long-term strategy was to demonize him. And, since then, Chevron has waged an all-out assault on Donziger in what’s become one of the most bitter and drawn-out cases in the history of environmental law.
Chevron has hired private investigators to track Donziger, created a publication just to smear him, and put together a legal team of hundreds of lawyers from 60 firms, who have successfully pursued an extraordinary campaign against him.
As a result, Donziger has been disbarred; his bank accounts have been frozen; he has had a lien placed on his apartment; he faces exorbitant fines; and he was prohibited from earning money. A court seized his passport and put him on house arrest. Chevron, which has a market capitalization of $316 billion, has the funds to continue targeting Donziger for as long as it chooses.
In an emailed statement, Chevron wrote that: “any jurisdiction that observes the rule of law should find the fraudulent Ecuadorian judgment to be illegitimate and unenforceable.” The statement also said that: “Chevron will continue to work to hold the perpetrators of this fraud accountable for their actions, including Steven Donziger, who has committed a litany of corrupt and illegal acts related to his Ecuadorian judicial fraud against Chevron.”
Donziger was charged with contempt of court for refusing to hand over his computer, cellphone, and other electronic devices in August of 2019. He had already endured 19 days of depositions and given Chevron large portions of his case file. To him, the request for his devices was beyond the pale, and he appealed it on the grounds that it would require him to violate his commitments to his clients. Still, Donziger said he’d turn over the devices if he lost the appeal. Instead, he ended up confined by the court to his Upper West Side apartment.
Even though the underlying case was civil, the federal court judge who has presided over the litigation between Chevron and Donziger since 2011, Lewis Kaplan, drafted criminal contempt charges against him.
Kaplan ruled in 2014 that the Ecuadorian judgment against Chevron was invalid because it was obtained through “egregious fraud” and that Donziger was guilty of racketeering, extortion, wire fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering.
The decision hinged on the testimony of an Ecuadorian judge named Alberto Guerra, who claimed that Donziger had bribed him during the original trial and that the decision against Chevron had been ghostwritten. In 2015, when Guerra testified in an international arbitration proceeding, he admitted that he had lied and changed his story multiple times.
In another legal peculiarity, in July, Kaplan appointed a private law firm to prosecute Donziger, after the Southern District of New York declined to do so — a move that is virtually unprecedented. And, as Donziger’s lawyer has pointed out, the firm Kaplan chose, Seward & Kissel, likely has ties to Chevron.
Making the case even more extraordinary, Kaplan bypassed the standard random assignment process and handpicked someone he knew well, U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska, to oversee the case being prosecuted by the firm he chose. It was Preska who sentenced Donziger to home detention and ordered the seizure of his passport, even though Donziger had appeared in court on hundreds of previous occasions.
When I visited Donziger in his apartment last year, he had no idea that he would end up spending more than 900 days there on house arrest.
On Monday, Donziger was finally released from house arrest. Ryan Grim and I talked to him shortly afterwards. Here is our conversation.
Steve Donziger: I’m feeling great.
SL: Yeah. Big day!
Ryan Grim: Yeah. What day did you get off? I mean, what time?
SD: It was around 9:30-10, maybe, in the morning?
RG: Did you get an alert that said — I mean, I saw you got an alert that was kind of penal coming after you at like five in the morning. But then did you get an alert saying that you’re now a free person?
SD: [Laughs.] No, they don’t do that.
SL: What’s the first thing you did?
SD: Well, I came outside, and there were some people there and I taped a little talk and took a picture. And then I went into the subway and came home and my wife was there. And some of my friends and we hugged, and we rejoiced in the moment.
I didn’t really fully understand what freedom was until it was taken away. I’ve lived in my home now for 993 days straight, other than 45 days in federal prison. So it’s been quite the experience. It lasted a long time for various reasons I think related to retaliation by Chevron against me for my successful human rights work in Ecuador. But the cost to me and my family, obviously, was very, very high. Although, I think at the end of the day, it really is backfiring against Chevron and that we now have a much bigger, broader platform to advocate from than we did before.
RG: Does it feel different to be in your home now that you know you can leave? Like, does the home itself feel different that you’re there voluntarily?
SD: It does feel different. Freedom is not only the ability to kind of move around, travel, go out to eat, do what you want to do when you want to do it within reason. It’s also a psychological state. I found that I had taken freedom for granted my whole life. I mean, even just the ability to sort of think: Eh, maybe later today I’ll go to dinner or maybe later today, I’ll go see a show or go visit a friend, you know? And what my house arrest did I mean prison is even worse obviously, but house arrest deprives you of the ability to plan. It cuts you off from your friends and your social life. You can’t even think about the future.
I mean, one bizarre feature of my experience was that when it began, I was pretrial and Covid hit and it was very unclear how long it would last and Judge Preska, who put the ankle bracelet on me and forced me into my house on the theory I was a risk of flight — which was preposterous, and I reject — it was very clear, she was never going to take that ankle bracelet off even if Covid lasted five years, and there were no trials being held.
So for a long, long, long period of time, most of the time I’ve been in detention, it felt like it was an indefinite detention. And it was. There was no endpoint. And it wasn’t until I was denied a jury and I had a contempt trial where Judge Preska, the very person who had locked me up for, by that point, two years and two months prior to trial, she was my sole fact finder. And of course, she convicted me after denying me a fair trial, in my opinion. And then she still — on top of the two years and two months — sentenced me to six months in prison [laughs] when, again, the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor is six months. And she gave me the full sentence, not counting the two years and two months she had already made me stay at home.
So this was a very, in my opinion, corporate-generated politicized effort by two federal judges, Judge Preska and her colleague Judge Kaplan who appointed her to the case and who charged me with these supposed crimes. I mean, his charges, by the way, were rejected by the federal prosecutor, but they prosecuted me anyway with his private corporate law firm that had Chevron as a client.
So there were all sorts of things happening. But it was very clear that this was a Chevron prosecution. All the main witnesses in my supposed trial were Chevron lawyers. The prosecutor was from a Chevron law firm and the judge, Judge Preska, is a major leader of the Federalist Society where Chevron is a major funder. So I was surrounded from almost every angle by Chevron during my supposed trial.
RG: And this is not remotely the same thing. But when I was in my late teens, I got put on supervised probation for basically underage drinking, it was an extremely draconian sentence that was laid out. My travel was restricted. I had to do weekly drug tests. I had to meet with the probation officer. And there was something about the entire like, when you talk about the psychology of it, there’s something about the state, like telling you that the public has decided that you are a person that needs to be controlled that is just kind of psychologically devastating, even if you know that it’s not true. And in my case, I knew it wasn’t true. And in your case, obviously wildly different, you are a human rights attorney getting basically by this judge, but there’s still something weighty about the public having dealt a sentence at you.
Is that related to the restriction of freedom or not?
SD: Well, I think you make a really good point with your question. There’s a certain designed humiliation that takes place —
SD: — when the state sentences anyone to any kind of punishment, or even subjects them to arrest without a conviction. People assume you’re guilty of something if you’re even arrested or detained pretrial, as I was. And really, I would argue that the whole point of why Chevron had this done to me was to try to criminalize my successful human rights advocacy.
This is not uncommon. A lot of big companies go after environmental lawyers and activists who do their jobs effectively to try to make it look like what they’re doing is criminal when what they’re actually doing is, at least in my case, complying with the law and trying to save the planet.
SL: I guess I would say, I think your case is unusual. It’s super unusual, I think. Have we seen any other human rights or environmental attorneys imprisoned in this way? I haven’t, for sure.
SD: Oh, no, I mean, my case is an absolute extreme outlier, there’s no doubt. You’re totally right. But there are a lot of other cases that are less severe where environmental activists have been prosecuted. I mean, the protests at Standing Rock and Line 3 are a great example.
I mean, these people are generally charged with trespassing, but many of them get locked up for months and months; indigenous peoples are charged with trespassing on their own historical ancestral lands to try to block the pipeline.
SD: So there’s all these legal so-called crimes that can be marshaled by, in that case, public prosecutors, in my case by a private law firm, that can create a supposed legal basis to lock people up.
I’d make this point though, which is that my case is an outlier. But I think the industry, the fossil fuel industry and the Chevron’s of the world, want it to become the new normal. And that’s why I think people really need to focus on this and pay attention. It’s an outlier now, but what happens when it happens again? Or for a third time or a fourth time? And suddenly you’re like: Oh, yeah, yeah, private prosecutions, OK, yeah, that happens now. And we can’t let an outlier — an extreme, I would call it — politically motivated prosecution of a human rights lawyer in the United States of America become the new normal, because this case, in my opinion, is a direct violation of the rule of law.
I mean, who’s ever heard of a private corporate law firm prosecuting a lawyer who won a civil case against a big oil company in that private corporate law firm, has the big oil company as a private client, while it’s prosecuting in the name of the U.S. government the main critic and the biggest adversary of the oil company? I mean, that’s not what happens in any rule of law country, much less the United States of America.
So, look, there’s no doubt Chevron broke new ground in terms of the tools and weapons it has and the larger industry has at their disposal, to capture the public machinery of justice of our criminal justice system and wield it in a way that tries to silence legitimate advocacy. That’s new. But that’s why it’s so scary. And I think that’s why, by the way, I’ve gotten so much support over the last two, three years while I’ve been detained. I mean, it’s just extraordinary the amount of support we’ve gotten, because people are really terrified by this. And they understand that this case goes way, way beyond me personally. It really is a direct assault on the ability to advocate by all environmental justice advocates, human rights lawyers who are on the frontlines trying to defend our Earth.
So more and more people get it, and we can’t let this happen again.
RG: And so Sharon, you’ve done for The Intercept some of the best reporting on this case. For people who are just tuning into it, can you catch people up on the background here?
SL: Yeah, thank you. So this case goes back to 1993, which I guess is what I would call the beginning, which is when a class action suit was filed in New York against Texaco over contamination of land in Ecuador that was the home to farmers and indigenous people, 30,000 people.
So I’m thinking that’s about 30 years ago that we’re talking about. So this case was moving forward in New York and was moved to Ecuador at the request of Chevron, actually. And in 2011, the Ecuadorian court ruled against Chevron ordering it to pay $18 billion, an award that was later reduced to $9.5 billion.
And this was a massive, huge and historic win — a real David and Goliath kind of situation. But, that same year, Chevron filed a RICO suit — a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations suit — against Steven in New York. And the company had made it clear a couple of years before in a document that we link in one of my stories, that its long-term strategy was to demonize him. And you can really see that play out both in the RICO suit and again, the RICO suit was, I believe that was 2011. So that’s already 11 years ago, basically that suit — in 2014 the case was decided in federal court by this federal court judge named Louis Kaplan, who ruled that the Ecuadorian judgment was invalid because it was obtained through fraud basically, and that judgment, and I know that’s super complicated, so stay with me, but that hinged on the testimony of an Ecuadorian judge named Alberto Guerra, who claimed that Donziger had bribed him in the original trial.
So it turned out that Guerra was actually paid by Chevron hundreds of thousands of dollars, and later admitted to having lied when Steven tried to get that testimony considered and the court to reconsider that testimony and declined.
And basically, what happened since then, was a sort of snowballing of decisions made by first Louis Kaplan, right, that found against Steven. So there’s the RICO suit, and then following the RICO suit that found that he, based on the testimony of this judge, had bribed the judge, even though we knew that that witness was paid by Chevron, and later admitted to lying; everything sort of hinged on that one decision, including the disbarment of Steven, right? And we should say that the charges that got him into this situation where he was on house arrest, and then spent some time in prison on a contempt of court charge, which is a civil charge, right? He was asked to hand over his cell phone and computer, something few attorneys have been asked to do. He said no, because he felt it would not be fair to his clients, and while this is a kind of strange charge, it is a civil charge, and I believe a misdemeanor — something that does not usually land anyone, no one gets arrested for this — in this case, of course, he was not only arrested, but served as he just said — how many days were you in on house arrest?
SD: Yeah — 993 days.
SL: Oh my god. So it’s really an extreme and unusual situation. And obviously an epic ordeal for Steven, as he’s telling us, but the reason, I think, beyond our concern for fellow human beings and for activist-attorneys who are working on behalf of fellow human beings, the reason we all need to worry about this, is because of the implications for activism and for trying to hold big oil companies accountable. And obviously, this has been going on for decades, as we said and when we were first getting the decisions in this case, between just those 9-10 years, I just feel like so much has changed in terms of the climate movement, right?
We’re now realizing that in order to survive, we need to hold accountable these companies and Steven’s case was like really one of the first where they were being held accountable for their oil extraction and the very environmental consequences of it. And they made it super clear that they were gonna fight back. And I feel like he was made an example of. And I’d love to talk more, and hear him talk more, about what the example means. In some ways, I think, as he has pointed out, there is some backlash that basically this can backfire on them.
But Steven, I worry, this has been, as you said, incredibly hard for you. And I’m wondering where this leaves you, financially and your career? Do you have a hope of reversing this disbarment? I’m curious.
SD: OK. So I think what Sharon said is really important. And I want to compliment Sharon on her excellent journalism, generally, and her work on this particular case. My case, in particular, she was really the first reporter to report extensively on my detention. And I appreciate The Intercept. I think you guys do great work.
Look, I feel really good right now. Chevron tried to silence me. I’m now through what they put on me. And I feel stronger and more supported than ever. I mean, we have so much support around the world that we never had before, largely because Chevron, I think, overreached. And the world stepped up to try to protect me and protect the Ecuadorians.
I mean, just as an example, there’s 68 Nobel Peace laureates who have demanded my release. There’s 120 human rights and environmental organizations who have written to President Biden demanding he pardon me. There’s dozens of bar associations around the world who demanded my release. So we’re coming out of this, in some ways, a lot stronger.
Yes, I’ve lost my law license. I hope to get it back. I’m starting a Substack, by the way, to become my own kind of journalist. I used to be a journalist. I’m going to be doing a lot of writing about the Ecuador case, and about the prison experience, and about other human rights issues around the world that I’m going to be working on. So I’m really excited about the future.
And I don’t plan anymore to practice law in a traditional sense. I plan to use my legal skills not to have clients, but to just be able to analyze the law and advocate more broadly for victims of human rights abuses. That’s one of the ways I’m planning on maintaining myself and my family.
SL: Are you still on the hook for legal expenses of Chevron, in this case?
SD: Unclear. Judge Kaplan, as part of these attacks on me, ordered me to literally pay millions of dollars to Chevron to reimburse it for legal expenses it used to persecute me, basically. So, look, there’s some legal issues that are still out there. This is not over just because I’m out of this detention situation. But the case is a civil case, not a criminal case. And we’ll see how it plays out.
SL: I wonder, too, I mean, one of the big tragedies of all of this is that while we have rallied to your defense, and I think rightly so, and have been highlighting the fact that this is a terrible example for other climate activists, the people of the Amazon and Ecuador have not received a penny, right, from this company for the destruction of their land? And I’m wondering what you think the prospects are for any justice to be done for any court, anywhere, forcing the company to pay the judgment?
SD: Well, I think that the prospects for forcing Chevron to pay the judgment are significant. I think that’s one reason why they keep attacking me because they’re so scared that I will somehow exercise what they believe are my powers of sorcery to somehow make them pay billions of dollars. I mean, I think they want to destroy me, because I raised most of the money to finance the case up to this point.
But, look, there’s other lawyers working on it now. I’m not going to be leading anything. I’m no longer a lawyer. We’ll see if the Ecuadorian communities and the rest of their legal team want to or are able to bring an enforcement action. I really don’t know how that’s going to play out. I do know that Chevron has a judgment against it in the courts of Ecuador that’s valid and has been affirmed by multiple appellate courts, both in Ecuador and Canada. So they have a real risk there. They’re fighting every step of the way to try to prevent payment of the money to the people that courts have determined they poisoned in the Amazon. How that plays out remains to be seen.
RG: And we’ve reached out to Chevron multiple times. And Sharon, you’ve gotten a handful of either statements or statements that they’ve offered elsewhere. They even created a propaganda outlet, like an entire newspaper, they call The Amazon Post that is dedicated to — and they don’t really hide that it’s their propaganda outlet. I have it here, they say at the very top of it, “Chevron’s views and opinions on the Ecuador lawsuit.” But it’s called The Amazon Post. And beyond that disclaimer at the top, it looks like a normal news outlet.
SL: I was obsessed with that.
RG: Right. [Laughs.]
SL: I have to say. That’s what drew me to your story, Steven. I used to go and look at that page. And after reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s The New Yorker story, years before, and it just blew me away — I kept thinking the company has hired people to work on this. And it’s like the massive resources they were enabled to focus on a single individual, you, is really mind blowing.
SD: Yeah, it is. I can’t believe it. [Laughs] And didn’t anticipate it.
I mean, they’ve set up two websites dedicated to what I would argue is the destruction of my reputation. They have also, on the legal front, used 60 different law firms, 2,000 lawyers, they have six PR firms, designed to control information around the case and what I and other advocates do.
But that was sort of my point earlier. I think they’ve sort of lost control of the messaging around the case, because the truth has caught up with their lives. That’s what I would argue. The evidence is so strong.
And I also think, Sharon, that locking me up for almost three years and people who interview me and who know me, know, that’s not who I am. I don’t commit crimes. I’m a lawyer, OK? So I think the overreach caused people to be, in my opinion, much, much more skeptical of Chevron’s claims than otherwise would have been. And I think the longer my detention lasts, I think the more people are like: Wait a second, if they’re in a private prosecution locking a lawyer up who won a big pollution judgment against them, then maybe they really did do something wrong. Maybe the lawyer’s right, maybe the courts in Ecuador are right in how they decided the case. So I think it shifted the perception greatly when they locked me up — in our favor.
SL: Well, how confident are you that they’re not going to continue to use their vast resources to smear you and attack you? Because, I mean, even when they’re not with public opinion, they’re incredibly powerful, right? Just because of the amount of money they have. So do you think that they’re going to stop going after you? And, if so, why?
SD: I think they’re gonna keep on the same path they’ve been on. I mean, I fully expect it. But I just don’t think it’s going to be that effective. I just don’t. I think people know too much now. And I think there’s enough people, there’s a critical mass of people out there, who have access to the information, outside of the corporate kind of big media companies, like the New York Times has, for years, ignored this critically important story as an example, you can hardly see anything on networks.
So baked into my life is that there’s a big oil company willing to spend lots of money to try and mess up my life.
SD: [Laughs.] That’s just how I have to live. And my guess is I’ll have to live that way for the rest of my life. But you know what? It’s like, good! OK? It means we were effective. And I want to emphasize that this stuff’s happening, I mean they’re attacking us, because we were successful and effective, not because of any other reasons.
So if you’re going to get into this field of work, and really go toe-to-toe with a big, powerful company that’s a major polluter in an effort to save our planet, you’re going probably, if you’re effective, to get hit with some version of what I’m getting hit with. I think I’m getting hit with a really extreme version, because of the size of the judgment and just the number of years it’s lasted.
SL: Well. You have said that you really want Biden to pardon you.
SL: And obviously that’s meaningful to you in some way. And I’m wondering what that would achieve for you, and, conversely, if he doesn’t do that, what are you stuck with? I think it’ll be helpful to understand what you’ve been weighed down with.
SD: Yeah, thank you.
I mean, so look, the reason we’re asking President Biden to pardon me is because the system failed, the legal system failed, in this case. And the way it failed is I’m the first person in American history to be prosecuted by a private corporation, a private corporate law firm, that had Chevron, in this case, as one of its clients. And I was the lawyer who beat Chevron in court over this significant, I would say epic, pollution case. And they were trying to retaliate against me and deprive me of my liberty. I’m the only lawyer ever in the U.S. to be held pretrial on a misdemeanor and I was held for over two years and two months, even though the longest sentence ever given a lawyer for my offense level prior to my case was 90 days of home confinement.
So this is clearly retaliation by a corporation. And it’s never been corrected by an appellate court. There’s nowhere to go.
So for the rule of law to be restored in our country, vis-a-vis what happened to me in this case, the only option is for President Biden to issue a pardon. That won’t save me from all the other attacks Chevron’s able to do, by the way. That would just be a pardon for the criminal conviction on this contempt case where I was denied a jury, and where I was prosecuted by this private law firm — and also, by the way, denied the right to put on a real defense by an evidentiary ruling of the judge. So I think it’s important that the United States not become a country that locks up its human rights lawyers, like some other countries around the world do. And I think President Biden is the only person at this point who can really address this problem in any kind of fundamental way.
By the way, we’ve asked Attorney General Garland to deal with it by taking back the prosecution from the Chevron law firm and prosecuting me directly under the auspices of the Department of Justice. Look, for a year, I was probably the only lawyer in U.S. history ever begging the DOJ to prosecute him or her.
SL: [Laughs.] Yeah.
SD: Because it was so preposterous. I couldn’t deal with this private law firm. They wouldn’t even negotiate; they wouldn’t talk with any kind of normal prosecutorial sanity or discretion. I mean, they were just out to harm me as much as they possibly could, backed by a judge who also was out to harm me. So the whole system went awry.
So I’m disappointed, by the way, in Attorney General Garland for not taking back the prosecution. I’m disappointed in his performance on other issues, like the January 6 so-called insurrection. But the only place left to go now in my case is President Biden for a pardon.
And by the way, you can go to my website freedonziger.com, you can read the letter that 10 lawyers signed, prominent lawyers, to President Biden seeking the pardon for me.
SL: But to be clear, for you, this is about the precedent and clearing your name? Or would it materially change anything for you? That’s what I’m curious about.
SD: Well, I think it is about clearing my name. I think it’s about erasing a conviction that’s a violation of international law and violation of the Constitution. I think it would be very powerful on a symbolic level. Look, it’s not going to give me my two years, and eight months, and two weeks — so it’s not going to give me back my 32 months and two weeks, OK? That’s gone forever. But it will restore, I think, some semblance of fairness to the process. And I think it’ll be symbolically extremely important for President Biden to step in to address this and correct this problem.
RG: And I also wanted to give you a chance to respond to some of Chevron’s claims. They’ve got these multiple PR firms, they have got different propaganda outlets online. And if you peruse those, you’ll see the claims that they’re making.
Sharon mentioned the bribery allegation, which turns out that Chevron actually paid an extraordinary amount of money to this person, and the person has admitted on the stand that they had lied.
So setting that key witness aside, they also make a number of minor claims. They claim that actually all of the damage to the rainforests was done by Petroecuador, not by Texaco or Chevron. They say that your team manipulated environmental reports and submitted them into the Ecuadorian courts. They say that you blackmailed a judge to get him removed from the case and generally improperly pressured the courts and the people around the court. So what’s the response to those various kinds of Chevron allegations?
SD: Yeah, so, look: We did not do anything wrong. Everything we did was in adherence to the law, and the rules and customs of the civil justice system in Ecuador. There was no bribe. First of all, I would never bribe a judge. None of the people on our team bribed the judge. There’s no evidence there was a bribe other than a paid Chevron witness who later admitted he lied. So I want to be very clear about that. These allegations were taken before the real courts in this case, those in Ecuador, and three appellate courts including the Supreme Court of the country and the country’s constitutional court completely rejected these allegations, because there’s no evidence other than from the mouth of this paid Chevron witness — his name is Alberto Guerra — who by the way, was coached for 53 straight days by Chevron’s lawyers in the United States before he took the stand in Judge Kaplan’s court, and came up with this spectacular allegation against me. He claimed I was in a meeting where he saw me approve the bribe of a trial judge — never happened. There was no evidence it happened other than from his mouth. And I’ve rejected it completely, as have courts all over the place.
They allege a lot of things: We manipulated environmental reports. I don’t know what they’re talking about. We worked, as lawyers, with our paid experts to write environmental reports that we thought accurately reflected the evidence, the soil and water samples that undeniably, unassailable-y, showed massive levels of toxic contamination at former Chevron well sites all over the rainforest. So they call that manipulation? Well, this is how the law works. Lawyers work with their experts to help them write reports; they did the same thing with their experts.
Blackmailed the judge? I completely reject that. [Laughs.] Like, what are they talking about? I mean, it’s crazy. What they’re alleging is the kinds of things they did constantly. Like they say we bribed the judge? Actually, no. They say we manipulated environmental reports? False. We wrote accurate environmental reports. They were the ones manipulating the environmental evidence by taking, for example, soil and water samples hundreds of meters away from the waste pits, and they would turn up no contaminants and say: Oh! There’s no contaminants at the site. That was manipulation.
And we did not blackmail a judge. They were constantly intimidating judges, or trying to, and threatening them with criminal charges, if they didn’t rule in their favor. They completely tried to delay and sabotage the trial by filing literally dozens and dozens of duplicative motions in an hour. I mean, there was crazy stuff happening, and Chevron was the party doing it, not us. So these allegations are completely false or highly misleading. And I’m happy to rest on the 220,000 pages of record evidence in the case, the 64,000 chemical sampling results, and the six appellate court decisions from 28 different appellate judges that affirmed the judgment.
RG: To me, one of the most mind-boggling charges to hear from a global oil company, was that it was unfair because you and your team had exerted political influence —
RG: — over the judicial process and over the system.
RG: It’s like a multinational oil company — Chevron is one of the top five oil companies in the world. Chevron might be top three.
RG: It is one of the most powerful institutions on the planet. And it is a fact, and you could talk a little bit about this, you’ve been in this world a lot longer, and it is a fact that the legal system is also political, and that that is the case here in the United States, that’s the case in Ecuador, that is the case all over the world. We’d like to pretend that the judicial system is entirely divorced from politics, but it’s not. We know that giant law firms have PR strategies and have political strategies around cases.
So what kind of political approach did you take to the case in Ecuador, and do you think that any of it was over the line? Or was it just: This is how you do a class action suit. Because class action suits are, in a lot of ways, inherently political.
SD: Well the debate over whether the law exists kind of in a separate silo free from politics or subject to politics is something I heard about a lot as a law student, and since. But, I mean, let’s get real. Every judicial system reflects the politics of the country within which it exists. And, for example, in the United States, as corporations I think consolidated their power tremendously over the last 10-20 years, with the Koch brothers funding network, and all these sort of trends that are happening with the Federalist Society now naming judges. The Federalist Society is this right-wing legal group that my trial judge is a member of and a leader of, funded by Chevron and a lot of the big corporations in America. I mean, it’s very clear, there’s been a very concerted effort by the corporate right to control the federal judiciary in this country, as well as state judiciaries.
And I think that what happened to me with this private corporate prosecution would not have happened had this 20-to-30-year effort not been implemented with some degree of success by these elements in our society. It is preposterous for Chevron to accuse us of somehow politicizing the case. All we wanted to do was do a legal case based on evidence. They would, for example, take out full-page advertisements in the leading Ecuadorian newspapers during the trial attacking me, or attacking our experts. The websites that Sharon talked about that are used to defame me today that you can get, The Amazon Post, I think it’s called, I urge people to go look at it. It’s crazy. They did that kind of stuff in Ecuador, they do it here, they do it constantly, not just in this case, but in trying to control what people think about climate change and about what they do as a company in terms of clean energy. It’s all very deceptive. And it’s all designed to impact how the law operates and how judges rule based on political pressure.
I mean, they’re trying to generate pressure to win cases through manipulation or abuse, that I don’t think they could ever win fairly on the merits of the actual claim. So they do that constantly. I saw it with my own eyes, in this case in Ecuador and since. And I observe this industry pretty closely because of the work I do. And you see this all the time.
So the idea that a human rights lawyer, for example, would talk to Sharon Lerner or talk to the press, or invite a documentary filmmaker to record the litigation — for them to try to argue that that was somehow inappropriate when they do those exact same things at a much, much higher and more effective level, I think is obviously hypocritical, insincere, and inaccurate.
SL: And let me just jump in about where Chevron ranks. So they’re second to Saudi Aramco in terms of the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted in the modern era.
SD: Wow. Yeah.
SL: So — yes.
SD: I’ll say this: People are obviously watching the war in Ukraine. Few people know that Chevron is literally the only large American company still doing business in Russia during this war. They’re partnering with Putin’s government on a huge gas pipeline that generates literally hundreds of millions of dollars a day in revenue for Russia, for the government, and for Putin to fund his army that is committing all sorts of atrocities in Ukraine. So Chevron is a company that turned its back on the Indigenous peoples of Ecuador whom it poisoned and to whom it owes money. They don’t pay; they leave these vulnerable communities holding the cleanup bill for harm that Chevron caused. And then they go over to Russia and they’re in business with Putin.
I mean, there’s no end it seems, no floor, to what I would argue is the moral bankruptcy of this particular company. But, of course, it’s an industry wide problem. I mean, it’s all about the money. And it’s very clear that our governmental institutions have been so seriously weakened by corporate money, that they’re incapable of actually standing up to this kind of abuse. I mean, that’s what I experienced again, in my private criminal prosecution.
SL: I definitely see how there’s a way in which this has really backfired for Chevron. And we’ve seen Chris Smalls and all these amazing activists kind of stream through your apartment while you’ve been stuck there. People are sort of going to pay tribute and it’s been this amazing thing to watch on your Instagram, right? All the people, the activists, who are recognizing what you’ve been through and pulling together. And I find that really inspiring and encouraging.
And on the other hand, the people of Ecuador who you were representing, again, have not received any of the money that they were supposed to get, the environmental mess is still there. And you have emerged on the other side of this, but you don’t have your law license and you can’t go defend them. And I hesitate to couch this all in terms of winners and losers. But [laughs] I worry about the upshot of all you’ve been through. I just think that there are a lot of lessons to be learned from this, and some of them are positive, and some of them are pretty scary.
SD: I share your concern. This is not all good for me. Look, it’s bad!
SD: I mean, what I’m really trying to convey is I got strengthened through the process of their persecution of me to the point where we’re in a much higher place right now, where I think they actually face more risk now than they did three years ago. But it doesn’t mean that they’re going to pay the Ecuador judgment by any means. It’s unclear how all of this is going to play out.
I think the big loss is for our society. I mean, there was a private corporate criminal prosecution that deprived a human rights lawyer of his liberty for almost three years based on a civil discovery order in a civil case. It’s never happened before. And I think that’s what people really need to focus on.
I mean, I’m confident enough in the support I have, in my resilience to really feel like I will get through whatever they try to throw at me from this point forward. It doesn’t mean I’ll have my old life back, because I have to deal with all sorts of issues and sort of byproduct of what I had to endure the last few years, but, I’m OK. My family’s OK.
I think the real question is: Where are we in the United States of America in terms of corporate control of our judiciary and of our governmental institutions? Because we really should not be living in a society where an oil company can directly prosecute its main adversary and deprive him of his liberty without the U.S. government being involved. That’s wrong. And that’s why I think President Biden, Attorney General Garland, the Congress — where are our leaders? I mean, I know people are busy with lots of obviously critically important issues other than the Ecuador case, and other than Chevron and Steve Donziger, I get it. [Laughs.] But this is a new kind of animal that our criminal justice system has never seen before in terms of the amount of corporate control and allowing someone’s liberty to be taken away, essentially, by a corporate adversary.
So I am hopeful, Sharon, that at least on that issue, enough attention can be drawn to this so that it never happens again to anyone else. At least that’s my hope.
SL: I would also say: You’re right that this is a government story, it’s a judiciary story, it is a climate story. And I think you’re right that it’s also a media story. When I went to see you in January 2020, you had already been on house arrest for a couple of months, and no one had written about it.
SD: I had been on house arrest for five months.
SD: I got arrested — or put on house arrest August 6, 2019. You came in January of the next year. And by the way, like, I couldn’t believe it lasted seven months. And if you had told me then it was going to last 32 months, I’d be like: There’s no way!
SL: [Laughs.] But it’s also —
SD: So, yes. This has been a story ignored by the mainstream media. Totally. I mean, they don’t know how to deal with it.
SL: And even after that. So after that story, quite a number of publications, I think we can call them lefty publications, have written about this. But I think you’re right, that there’s been a real silence. And I think I know why. You get calls from the attorneys, who scare the bejesus out of editors.
SD: I focus on my own social media; I focus on truly independent outlets like The Intercept, The Nation, and others. And just, we work with what we have. And we have been successful in getting our narrative out there and getting the facts as we see them out there. But I think it’s deeply disappointing that a human rights lawyer was locked up for five months, there were no stories at all, and since you really opened the floodgates — once you wrote, by the way, a lot of other independent outlets started to write. But we still haven’t been able to penetrate the large media companies.
RG: And let me take this opportunity to make a plug, not just for The Intercept but for the independent media sphere. Like if you, as a listener, watch any YouTube shows, you listen to independent podcasts, you read independent websites — become a member. Support that independent media because it’s valuable in a system where the other piece of it is so tightly connected to corporate America, that you can have just absolutely extraordinary stories that go uncovered because of the fear of the consequences of covering them. And so that’s a plug, not just for The Intercept, but for all independent media.
And also, Steven, what was it again, stevendonziger.substack.com? Is that your newsletter?
SD: Yeah. So I had my first post and launched it last week. I’m going to be writing every week about all sorts of issues related to the criminal justice system. Years ago, I edited a book called “The Real War on Crime.” I used to be a criminal defense lawyer. I just spent 45 days in the belly of the beast in federal prison, and several more months dealing with this home confinement craziness, where I get calls by this for-profit company at all hours of the day and night. So I’m going to be writing about a lot of human rights issues, criminal justice issues, and of course, Chevron and some of the oil industry and climate issues.
And, again, it’s stevendonziger.substack.com. I hope people subscribe, and get interested in some of this material. I’m really no different than The Intercept, just as a person, in the sense that I feel like it’s very hard to create platforms where truly independent reporting and commentary can actually take place. The Intercept is a relatively new institution in our world, but it’s so important. I get so much of my information from y’alls outlet, and I salute all of y’all for what you do — and others as well. The media landscape has changed.
I mean, look, had this happened 25 years ago and The New York Times decided not to cover me, like, I don’t think anyone would have known about this.
SD: Where would you have gone back then? And now the reality is the story is out. When they arrested me back in 2019, I think I had about 1,000 Twitter followers. And now I have 180,000. Like there’s people very engaged in this story all over the world. By the way, if people want to follow me it’s @sdonziger.
Sorry to keep plugging myself! But I hope you understand why I do that —
RG: I do.
SD: — because it’s the only way I can get support.
So we’re just in a completely different environment where you don’t as much need these big media outlets to get the truth out, like you did years ago. So I’m trying to take full advantage of that. And like even being on this podcast, having The Intercept write about this on a regular basis. You guys read another story about Sen. Gillibrand’s relationship to Chevron and Chevron lawyers. There’s so much interesting reporting going on over there. So I’m just appreciative and I don’t know what to say.
And by the way, I recognize that some of this case is a little complicated. But, to me, it’s real simple. I mean, the Indigenous peoples were poisoned by Chevron, they won a legal case, Chevron’s now trying to destroy the legal case by destroying their lawyer. And if you want to read more about it, you know, on our website, freedonziger.com, there’s a bunch of articles, including from The Intercept, where people can get a lot more background information than we have time to delve into now in this podcast.
RG: Thanks for taking some time out of your first day of freedom. And I hope you enjoy the rest of it. And thank you, Sharon, for joining me as well.
SL: Thank you for having me. And Steven, I hope you take a nice long walk.
SL: Look at the sky!
SD: I need a breather. And thank you, Sharon, for your great work and Ryan, appreciate your great journalism as well. And I really appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts with you guys.
RG: Great. Thank you, Steven.
SL: That was Steven Donziger and Ryan Grim.
That’s our show. Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
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Thanks so much!