Is Chevron’s Vendetta Against Steven Donziger Finally Backfiring?

Steven Donziger, the human rights lawyer who spent nearly three decades fighting Chevron on behalf of 30,000 people in the Ecuadorian rainforest, has been sentenced to six months in federal prison for “criminal contempt.” On October 1, in a lower Manhattan federal courtroom, Judge Loretta Preska justified imposing the maximum penalty by asserting that Donziger, now 60, had not shown contrition. She said, “It seems that only the proverbial two-by-four between the eyes will instill in him any respect for the law.”

In May, Preska had found Donziger guilty after a trial without a jury. And now Donziger, along with his family and scores of supporters, had to listen to the federal judge compare him to a mule who needed to be beaten with a piece of wood before complying.

Prior to sentencing, Donziger reminded the court in a polite and at times emotional statement that he had already spent 787 days under house arrest in his New York City apartment, a confinement that had put great pressure on his wife and teenage son. He explained that the court-imposed restrictions meant that his son had a father who was “unable to travel, leave his home except under narrow exceptions with court permission 48 hours in advance, unable to even go out for dinner, unable to have a father capable of doing all the things a father can do and should do with a child, including act with spontaneity.”

But even though Donziger was facing prison, he told the court he would not back down: “I have been attacked and demonized for years by Chevron in retaliation for helping Indigenous peoples in Ecuador try to do something to save their cultures, their lives, and our planet in the face of massive oil pollution. That’s the context for why we are here today.”

In response, Preska read out a prepared 50-minute statement for her harsh sentence. “Mr. Donziger spent the last seven plus years thumbing his nose at the US judicial system,” she said. “It’s now time to pay the piper.”

Donziger will not go to prison immediately. His attorneys will challenge the criminal contempt conviction, and they will also ask a higher court to put off his prison sentence pending that appeal. But Preska will keep him under house arrest, once again calling him a “flight risk.” In the past, she has warned that he “has ties to Ecuador,” insinuating that he would abandon his family and his New York City apartment to go live in the rain forest.

You can’t understand this latest injustice without looking back at Chevron’s long campaign against Donziger, who won a landmark pollution case against the oil giant in Ecuadorian courts in 2013. Chevron was ordered to spend $9.5 billion to clean up a contaminated area the size of Rhode Island, and to pay for the health care of the 30,000 plaintiffs whose communities have seen a rising number of cancer cases. Instead of following the legal order, Chevron launched a case in New York, and in 2014, a federal judge, Lewis Kaplan, found Donziger and some of his Ecuadorian allies civilly liable for racketeering, bribery, and fraud. Then, Kaplan asked the federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York to put Donziger on trial for “criminal contempt” connected to the original conviction. The federal prosecutor refused, so Kaplan handpicked an attorney from a private firm, Rita Glavin, to prosecute—a nearly unprecedented legal maneuver.

As Chevron’s vendetta continued, international outrage grew. Just before sentencing, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued an opinion in Donziger’s favor, ruling that his two years of house arrest was illegal under international law and that he had been denied the right to a fair trial. A panel of five prominent jurists called that confinement “arbitrary” and said that both judges, Kaplan and Preska, had shown “a staggering lack of objectivity and impartiality.” In court, Preska briefly acknowledged the UN findings only to dismiss them.

Once again, the mainstream media is largely ignoring Chevron’s campaign of retaliation against Donziger. The New York Times, Donziger’s hometown newspaper, reported nothing in the two days after the verdict, and has barely mentioned the case for the past seven years.

Back in 1993, Donziger, fresh out of Harvard Law School, joined an ongoing fight for environmental justice. The struggle against Texaco, which was taken over by Chevron in 2001, began in the late 1980s in eastern Ecuador, where the oil company drilled and operated wells from 1972 to 1992. Texaco had disposed of its drilling wastes by methods that in some cases would have been illegal in the United States. (More details are here.) Local people began organizing against the pollution in their rivers and streams and in oil-soaked stretches of their land. The case started in the New York federal courts, but then a judge ordered it sent back to Ecuador—a move that Chevron’s lawyers welcomed at the time. So, in 2003, the legal battle re opened in the eastern oil frontier town of Lago Agrio.

The case wound its way up through three levels of the Ecuadorian courts, and in the end, after Chevron exhausted all appeals, its guilt was confirmed. Meanwhile, though, its counterattack back in New York was underway. Chevron charged that Donziger and his allies had committed bribery and fraud in Ecuador to win their case, and it used the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which had been designed to prosecute the Mafia. Donziger and the codefendants expected they would face a jury, but at the last minute, Chevron dropped its demand for financial damages. Under RICO law, this meant the defendants lost their right to a jury, and Kaplan alone would decide the case.

Donziger’s supporters objected to Kaplan’s pro-corporate statements and hostility toward the human rights lawyer during the RICO trial. Kaplan is a career corporate lawyer turned judge, with no experience in Ecuador or anywhere else in the Global South. Yet he decided which witnesses to believe and which to disregard—and in 2014 he found Donziger and the others guilty.

Only a corporation like Chevron worth billions could have financed such a prosecution. The oil giant paid for a disgraced former judge named Alberto Guerra and his family to move to the United States. Chevron’s lawyers rehearsed Guerra’s testimony with him 53 times before he went on the witness stand, where Guerra claimed that Donziger and an Ecuadorian lawyer had offered him a $500,000 bribe and that the pair had ghostwritten the final judgment against Chevron. Donziger and his defense team estimate that Chevron has spent $2 billion on legal fees and other costs. (Chevron’s designated spokesman, James Craig, declined to give the corporation’s own figure for how much it has spent on the case. Craig also declined to say if Chevron is still paying Guerra or if he is still living in the United States.)

Chevron’s attacks against Donziger did not stop after it won the racketeering verdict. The current contempt case began when the oil corporation petitioned Kaplan for access to Donziger’s personal computer and cell phone. Donziger declined, arguing that his electronic communications would give Chevron’s lawyers “backdoor access to everything we are planning, thinking, and doing.” He said he would wait until the US Court of Appeals heard his argument, and if it required him to, then he would hand over his electronics. Preska dismissed his defense and convicted him in May—again, without a jury.

It’s vital to recognize Chevron’s role in this legal persecution. Its attorneys show up at every Donziger legal case—even the ones that don’t directly involve the company. At the same time as Donziger was defending himself against the criminal contempt charge, he was also fighting the effort to take away his license to practice law in New York. The state bar association appointed a special officer named John Horan to preside over open hearings, and he found in Donziger’s favor. Horan, a former prosecutor, had harsh words for Chevron: “The extent of [Donziger’s] pursuit by Chevron is so extravagant, and at this point so unnecessary and punitive, [that] while not a factor in my recommendation, [it] is nonetheless background to it.”

Months later, a higher New York state court tossed out Horan’s finding and disbarred Donziger.

Putting Donziger in a federal prison for six months is more than vindictiveness. The $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron in Ecuador still stands, but the oil giant unloaded its assets there. That means the plaintiffs must collect in other countries where the corporation has holdings. Kaplan’s racketeering verdict specifically prohibited the Ecuadorians from forcing Chevron to pay the judgment in the United States. But there are promising possibilities in Canada and elsewhere. Donziger is forced to put those fights on hold while he tries to stay out of prison.

But there are signs that Chevron has gone too far, and that relentlessly pursuing a human rights lawyer is damaging its international reputation. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is only the latest sign of concern and anger. Sixty-eight Nobel Laureates have shown their solidarity; another 475 lawyers and human rights defenders have signed a letter that calls his prosecution “one of the most important corporate accountability and human rights cases of our time.” Representative Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said after the prison sentence that “it’s the executives at Chevron,” not Donziger, “who should be behind bars.”

What’s more, a movement to boycott Chevron is in the early stages. Big Oil is under scrutiny because of its role in the climate crisis, and divestment campaigns on college campuses and elsewhere are starting to have an impact. Large institutional investors may also start to pay attention. CalPERS, the giant retirement investment fund for California government employees, is headquartered in Chevron’s home state, and the teachers and municipal employees who contribute to it may ask why it holds $456 million of the oil giant’s stock.

Richard Rohr Meditation: Persecuted for My Sake

Today Óscar Romero (1917–1980) will be named a saint by the Catholic Church. As Archbishop of San Salvador for the last four years of his life, Romero was a strong, public voice for the many voiceless and anonymous poor of El Salvador and Latin America. When he preached in the cathedral on Sunday mornings, I’m told that the streets were empty and all the radios where on full volume, to hear truth and sanity in an insane and corrupt world.

Here is a man who suffered with and for those who suffered. His loving heart shines through clearly in his homilies:

The shepherd must be where the suffering is. [1]

My soul is sore when I learn how our people are tortured, when I learn how the rights of those created in the image of God are violated.  [2]

A Gospel that doesn’t take into account the rights of human beings, a Christianity that doesn’t make a positive contribution to the history of the world, is not the authentic doctrine of Christ, but rather simply an instrument of power. We . . . don’t want to be a plaything of the worldly powers, rather we want to be the Church that carries the authentic, courageous Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, even when it might become necessary to die like he did, on a cross. [3]

In his homily on March 23, 1980, the day before he was murdered, Romero addressed the Salvadoran military directly:

Brothers, we are part of the same people. You are killing your own brother and sister peasants and when you are faced with an order to kill given by a man, the law of God must prevail; the law that says: Thou shalt not kill. No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. And it is time that you recover your consciences. . . . In the name of God, then, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise up to heaven each day more tumultuously, I plead with you, I pray you, I order you, in the name of God: Stop the repression! [4]

The next day, following his sermon, a U.S.-supported government hit squad shot him through his heart as he stood at the altar.

Only a few weeks earlier, Romero had said:

I have often been threatened with death. I must tell you, as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If I am killed, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. I say so without boasting, with the greatest humility. . . . A bishop will die, but God’s church, which is the people, will never perish. [5]

Stephen Miller Is an Immigration Hypocrite. I Know Because I’m His Uncle.

If my nephew’s ideas on immigration had been in force a century ago, our family would have been wiped out.

.. Let me tell you a story about Stephen Miller and chain migration.It begins at the turn of the 20th century, in a dirt-floor shack in the village of Antopol, a shtetl of subsistence farmers in what is now Belarus. Beset by violent anti-Jewish pogroms and forced childhood conscription in the Czar’s army, the patriarch of the shack, Wolf-Leib Glosser, fled a village where his forebears had lived for centuries and took his chances in America.

He set foot on Ellis Island on January 7, 1903, with $8 to his name. Though fluent in Polish, Russian and Yiddish, he understood no English.

.. In the span of some 80 years and five decades, this family emerged from poverty in a hostile country to become a prosperous, educated clan of merchants, scholars, professionals, and, most important, American citizens.

.. What does this classically American tale have to do with Stephen Miller? Well, Izzy Glosser is his maternal grandfather, and Stephen’s mother, Miriam, is my sister.

I have watched with dismay and increasing horror as my nephew, an educated man who is well aware of his heritage, has become the architect of immigration policies that repudiate the very foundation of our family’s life in this country.

.. I shudder at the thought of what would have become of the Glossers had the same policies Stephen so coolly espouses— the travel ban, the radical decrease in refugees, the separation of children from their parents, and even talk of limiting citizenship for legal immigrants — been in effect when Wolf-Leib made his desperate bid for freedom.

.. The Glossers came to the U.S. just a few years before the fear and prejudice of the “America first” nativists of the day closed U.S. borders to Jewish refugees.

Had Wolf-Leib waited, his family likely would have been murdered by the Nazis along with all but seven of the 2,000 Jews who remained in Antopol. I would encourage Stephen to ask himself if the chanting, torch-bearing Nazis of Charlottesville, whose support his boss seems to court so cavalierly, do not envision a similar fate for him.

As in past generations, there were hate mongers who regarded the most recent groups of poor immigrants as scum, rapists, gangsters, drunks and terrorists, but largely the Glosser family was left alone to live our lives and build the American dream.
.. blind to the hypocrisy of their policy decisions. After all, Stephen’s is not the only family with a chain immigration story in the Trump administration. Trump’s grandfather is reported to have been a German migrant on the run from military conscription to a new life in the United States, and his mother fled the poverty of rural Scotland for the economic possibilities of New York City. (Trump’s in-laws just became citizens on the strength of his wife’s own citizenship.)
.. These facts are important not only for their grim historical irony but because vulnerable people are being hurt. They are real people, not the ghoulish caricatures portrayed by Trump.
.. In the early 2000s, Joseph (not his real name) was conscripted at the age of 14 to be a soldier in Eritrea and sent to a remote desert military camp. Officers there discovered a Bible under his pillow which aroused their suspicion that he might belong to a foreign evangelical sect that would claim his loyalty and sap his will to fight. Joseph was actually a member of the state-approved Coptic church but was nonetheless immediately subjected to torture. “They smashed my face into the ground, tied my hands and feet together behind my back, stomped on me, and hung me from a tree by my bonds while they beat me with batons for the others to see.”
.. Joseph was tortured for 20 consecutive days before being taken to a military prison and crammed into a dark unventilated cell with 36 other men, little food and no proper hygiene. Some died, and in time Joseph was stricken with dysentery. When he was too weak to stand, he was taken to a civilian clinic where he was fed by the medical staff. Upon regaining his strength, he escaped to a nearby road where a sympathetic driver took him north through the night to a camp in Sudan where he joined other refugees. Joseph was on the first leg of a journey that would cover thousands of miles and almost 10 years.

.. Before Donald Trump had started his political ascent promulgating the false story that Barack Obama was a foreign-born Muslim, while my nephew, Stephen, was famously recovering from the hardships of his high school cafeteria in Santa Monica, Joseph was a child on his own in Sudan in fear of being deported back to Eritrea to face execution for desertion.

.. In all of the countries he traveled through during his ordeal, he was vulnerable, exploited and his status was “illegal.” But in the United States, he had a chance to acquire the protection of a documented immigrant.

.. Today, at 30, Joseph lives in Pennsylvania and has a wife and child. He is a smart, warm, humble man of great character who is grateful for every day of his freedom and safety. He bears emotional scars from not seeing his parents or siblings since he was 14. He still trembles, cries and struggles for breath when describing his torture, and he bears physical scars as well.

.. I have met Central Americans fleeing corrupt governments, violence and criminal extortion; a Yemeni woman unable to return to her war-ravaged home country and fearing sexual mutilation if she goes back to her Saudi husband; and an escaped kidnap-bride from central Asia.

.. Trump wants to make us believe that these desperate migrants are an existential threat to the United States; the most powerful nation in world history and a nation made strong by immigrants. Trump and my nephew both know their immigrant and refugee roots. Yet, they repeat the insults and false accusations of earlier generations against these refugees to make them seem less than human.

Trump publicly parades the grieving families of people hurt or killed by migrants, just as the early Nazis dredged up Jewish criminals to frighten and enrage their political base to justify persecution of all Jews.

Almost every American family has an immigration story of its own based on flight from war, poverty, famine, persecution, fear or hopelessness. Most of these immigrants became workers, entrepreneurs, scientists and soldiers of America.

.. Most damning is the administration’s evident intent to make policy that specifically disadvantages people based on their ethnicity, country of origin and religion. No matter what opinion is held about immigration, any government that specifically enacts law or policy on that basis must be recognized as a threat to all of us. Laws bereft of justice are the gateway to tyranny. Today others may be the target, but tomorrow it might just as easily be you or me. History will be the judge, but in the meantime the normalization of these policies is rapidly eroding the collective conscience of America.

 

 

 

 

 

Romans 12: Overcome Evil with Good

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;[f] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 1

.. 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

How, Exactly, Does This Travel Ban Keep Us Safe, Mr. President?

The ostensible purpose of your ban is to keep Americans safe from terrorists by barring visitors, refugees and immigrants from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen. So let’s consider, nonhysterically, what such a ban might have accomplished had it come into force in recent years.

It would not have barred Ramzi Yousef, the Kuwait-born Pakistani who helped mastermind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

It would have been irrelevant in the case of Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh, the American perpetrators of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in which 168 people were murdered.

It would have been irrelevant in the case of Eric Rudolph, the Christian terrorist who killed one person at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and later bombed abortion clinics and a gay bar.

It would not have barred Mohamed Atta, ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers. Atta was an Egyptian citizen who arrived in the U.S. on a visa issued by the American Embassy in Berlin in May 2000.

It would not have barred Atta’s accomplices, all in the United States on legal visas. Fifteen of them were from Saudi Arabia, two from the United Arab Emirates and another from Lebanon.

It would have been irrelevant in the case of the 2001 anthrax attacks, in which five people were killed. The attacks are widely believed (without conclusive proof) to have been the work of the late Bruce Ivins, an American microbiologist.

It would not have barred Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a Miami-bound airliner in 2001 with explosives hidden in his shoes. Reid was a London-born Briton who converted to Islam as an adult.

Richard Rohr: Sermon on Mount: Description of a Free Life

 For ancient people, salt was an important preservative, seasoning, and symbol of healing. What does Jesus mean by such an image?

First, he’s not saying that those who live this way are going to heaven. He is saying that they will be gift for the earth. We think of Jesus’ teaching as prescriptions for getting to heaven (even though we haven’t followed them). Instead, the Sermon on the Mount is a set of descriptions of a free life.

Jesus’ moral teaching is very often a description of the final product rather than a detailed process for getting there. When you can weep, when you can identify with the little ones, when you can make peace, when you can be persecuted and still be joyful . . . then you’re doing it right. He is saying, as it were, this is what holiness looks like. When you act this way, “The Kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). Jesus doesn’t seem to be concerned about control, enforcement, or uniformity.

.. If Christians—Jesus’ self-proclaimed followers—no longer believe the Gospel, if we no longer believe in nonviolence and powerlessness, then who’s going to convert us? We’re supposed to be the leaven of the world, yet if we no longer believe in the Gospel, what hope do we have of offering anything new to anyone?

.. “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better” is one of the Center for Action and Contemplation’s core principles.

Richard Rohr Meditation: Blessed Are the Persecuted

Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of justice: the kingdom of Heaven is theirs. —Matthew 5:10

I guess we should not be surprised that this Beatitude follows the previous ones. The first and last Beatitudes are present tense: Theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. Until this statement, Jesus has said “happy are the . . .,” speaking generally. Now he says happy are “those of you. . . .” Very likely Matthew is conveying that this scene is happening directly in front of Jesus. His small community is being persecuted, and Jesus tells them to “rejoice and be glad”! Persecution for the cause of justice is inevitable. Instead of seeking to blame someone for their well-earned scars, he is telling them two clear things: You can be happy—and you can be happy now!