Tuesday, December 7, 2010

No Sanction for Chevron Lawyers Over Abusive Questioning in Ecuador Case

As followers of this blog know, American oil giant Chevron has been on a legal rampage, engaging in a scorched earth political, legal, and media strategy in an 11th hour attempt to evade accountability for massive oil pollution the company discharged into the environment in the Ecuadorian Amazon, which continues to sicken and kill people living in the contaminated region. Using abusive and unprecedented tactics, Chevron and its outside lawyers at corporate law behemoth Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher have lately been serving subpoenas to many of the scientific and other experts who have helped the local indigenous people, farmers, and migrants who are suing Chevron for environmental cleanup.

Recently, ecologist Doug Beltman, a consultant scientist for the Ecuadorians, sat for a deposition with Chevron's lawyers from Gibson Dunn. Immediately, Chevron's attack dog attorney Andrea Neuman let loose at Mr. Beltman with a fusillade of questions that were clearly designed to harass and intimidate him. She needled him about his knowledge of various criminal statues and implied that he could be facing criminal prosecution or that his company could be debarred from contracting for the Federal Government, a major client of Mr. Beltman's esteemed environmental consulting firm, Boulder-based Stratus Consulting.

Following the shocking deposition, lawyers for Mr. Beltman and Stratus, as well as lawyers for the Ecuadorian plaintiffs, filed a motion for sanctions against Chevron's lawyers over the abusive questioning.

In "Stratus’ and Ecuadorian Plaintiffs’ Motion for Sanctions Against Petitioner Chevron Corporation," they wrote:

"Counsel’s clear intent, right at the beginning of the deposition, was to intimidate the witness by raising the specter of criminal proceedings and government debarment of Stratus. The questioning had no legitimate purpose. It did not concern Mr. Beltman’s knowledge concerning facts relevant to the proceeding. It was blatant, naked intimidation that violated Local Rule 30.3(A)(5)."

A month later on November 15th, Colorado Magistrate Judge Michael Hegarty issued a ruling that ordered Neuman and her Gibson Dunn colleagues to refrain from similar kinds of questioning in future proceedings.

The Amazon Defense Coalition, which represents the plaintiffs, issued a press release a few days later, with the headline, "Chevron Lawyers at Gibson Dunn Sanctioned by Federal Court Over Ecuador Case."

I read the transcript of Andrea Neuman's questioning of Doug Beltman. I read the motion for sanctions filed by his lawyers and those of the Ecuadorian plaintiffs. I read the ruling from the judge. And I read the ADC's press release. Then, I wrote an article here, also using the word "sanction" to characterize the court's decision.

Well, it seems that Chevron and their hired guns can live with blood on their hands as they diligently work day in and day out to deny justice to the suffering men, women, and children living with the oil giant's pollution in Ecuador. But for the plaintiffs' lawyers to suggest that the magistrate judge had "sanctioned" Ms. Neuman was simply too much to bear.

Shortly after the ADC's press release went out, Gibson Dunn lawyers fired off letters to the plaintiffs' attorneys demanding that they retract the release and that they remove my article. Of course, the Amazon Defense Coalition doesn't control this blog. It's a place for commentary and analysis on Chevron's legacy in Ecuador – and the epic legal battle to hold the company accountable – written by activists with Amazon Watch, like me.

Nonetheless, lawyers from the ADC did drop me a few lines asking me to please remove the post. It seems that Chevron is throwing absolutely everything they have at them and I guess it's enough to have to deal with all the rest of the abusive litigation tactics without worrying about some sort of ridiculous defamation suit.

Finally, Chevron went back to the judge and asked him to clarify the original ruling which read:

Stratus’ and Ecuadorian Plaintiffs’ Motion for Sanctions Against Petitioner Chevron Corporation (Doc. #272, filed 10/14/10) is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part as stated on the record. Petitioner’s questions in dispute asked during Respondent Beltman’s deposition shall not be repeated in depositions of other witnesses.

This time, the judge writes in a clarifying order:

Petitioner Chevron Corporation’s Motion for Clarification of the Court’s Order (Dkt. 293) on Stratus and Ecuadorian Plaintiffs’ Motion for Sanctions (Dkt. 272) in Light of Plaintiffs’ Misleading Press Release Stating the Court “Sanctioned” Chevron’s Lawyers [filed November 22, 2010; docket #298] is granted as follows. Although the Stratus Respondents and the Ecuadorian Plaintiffs termed their request for relief as a sanction, the Court views its ruling simply as a ruling on an objection to the line of Petitioner’s questioning challenged by the Respondents and Plaintiffs. The Court granted the motion for sanctions to the extent the Court sustained the objection to the line of questioning, but the Court denied the motion to the extent it sought sanctions.

So there it is; as vague as it was, when the judge originally wrote "denied in part" he was referring to the sanctions against Ms. Newman and her colleagues sought by lawyers for Mr. Beltman and the Ecuadorian plaintiffs. So it is not accurate to say that Ms. Neumann was sanctioned by the judge.

Of course, in Ecuador, three Chevron lawyers HAVE been sanctioned – and fined – for abusing court procedures to obstruct and delay the trial. Another two Chevron lawyers are under criminal indictment for lying about a phony remediation in order to secure a release of liability from the government... which, it should be noted, does not apply to the individuals in Ecuador still fighting for cleanup and compensation.

Anyway, whether or not we think the abusive tactics by Chevron's lawyers deposing plaintiffs' consultant Doug Beltman deserve to be sanctioned, the Judge has clarified his order. No sanction. And after hearing from the plaintiffs' lawyers again about the threatening letters, I've updated the previous post (Hey Chevron lawyers, no need to send me a letter, thanks!). Now, Gibson Dunn has even sent out a press release, accusing the plaintiffs' lawyers of "knowingly" disseminating "false and defamatory statements" when in fact the only thing in question – if you read the press releases and court filings – is use of the word "sanction" itself.

But since the judge has clarified his order, I agree that the record should be corrected. And so it is.

Now, if only Chevron and its lawyers would get so worked up about the ongoing epidemic of cancer and spontaneous miscarriages around the company's former oil sites in Ecuador.

Read more about Chevron and their Gibson Dunn lawyers' scorched-earth legal, political, and PR strategy to evade accountability in Ecuador in this briefing paper published by Amazon Watch: UNDERSTANDING RECENT DEVELOPMENTS IN THE LANDMARK CHEVRON-ECUADOR CASE

– Han

Han Shan is Coordinator of Amazon Watch's Clean Up Ecuador Campaign

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