Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — For two years Chevron has said that a multibillion-dollar judgment in a pollution case against the company in Ecuador was rigged by a U.S. lawyer, Steven R. Donziger, asserting that he tampered with witnesses and bribed an Ecuadorean judge. On Tuesday, the company’s lawyers confronted Donziger in a Manhattan federal courtroom.

In one of the more dramatic moments in a legal battle that has stretched for 20 years, a lawyer for Chevron questioned Donziger over a string of emails that he received from an Ecuadorean colleague that included words like “puppet” and “puppeteer.” The words, the company maintains, were references to two judges involved in bribes that it says Donziger and his associates arranged.

“‘The puppet will finish the entire matter tomorrow’ — do you recall that, Mr. Donziger?” asked the lawyer, Randy M. Mastro, quoting from the emails. “The puppeteer is pulling the string and the puppet is returning the package.”

Donziger responded that the messages were of little importance, brushing off the terms as “nicknames, jokes, that kind of stuff.”

But Mastro continued, asking if “puppet” referred to Nicolas Augusto Zambrano, the judge who issued an $18 billion award, which was recently lowered to $9.5 billion by Ecuador’s highest court.

“I have no recollection who it referred to,” Donziger replied. “I don’t think I paid a lot of attention to these emails.”

The exchange was part of a series of questions by Mastro in which he repeatedly sought to raise doubts about Donziger’s credibility.

Donziger, who maintained his composure through the questioning, has denied bribing anyone, and he argues that he was up against a powerful corporation that took many of the actions he is accused of taking, including paying witnesses, manipulating evidence and meeting privately with court officials. Chevron denies committing any fraud.

Donziger first became interested in the case in the early 1990s, when he heard stories about how Texaco, later acquired by Chevron, cut through Amazon forests, drilled wells and poured toxic oil waste into unlined pits in the 1970s and 1980s. Only two years out of Harvard Law School, Donziger plunged into a class-action lawsuit brought by inhabitants of the Amazonian village of Lago Agrio.

Eventually, Donziger emerged as the lead legal organizer for the plaintiffs and helped manage the case up to the multibillion-dollar judgment in 2011.

Chevron appealed that award and filed the civil suit against Donziger and others. The company would use a ruling against him to strengthen its argument in foreign courts against enforcing the Ecuadorean judgment.

The racketeering case, which is being heard without a jury by Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, has brought a flood of revelations.

Donziger has been compelled to surrender a diary detailing secret meetings with Ecuadorean judges. He was also forced to hand over email correspondence containing messages from one of his Ecuadorean colleagues, which included the references to the “puppeteer” that Donziger earlier this year said referred to a fee dispute with a “very bossy lawyer.”

Mastro also questioned Donziger about the fact that his colleagues had helped prepare an environmental report to the Ecuadorean judge by a court-appointed witness and engineer, Dr. Richard Cabrera, suggesting that they had tried to conceal that involvement and had used threats to persuade a judge to appoint Cabrera as an expert.

“You knew that Richard Cabrera would be issuing whatever multibillion-dollar report that you and your legal team wanted?” Mastro asked.

“We had an expectation that he would issue an accurate report,” Donziger replied.

Most damaging have been claims by Chevron that Donziger meddled in the court’s decision. The company filed a declaration several months ago by the former Ecuadorean judge Alberto Guerra describing how he and Zambrano allowed the plaintiffs’ lawyers to write their entire judgment in exchange for $500,000 from the expected recovery.

Zambrano and Donziger have denied any bribery. And Donziger’s lawyers have said that Guerra is not credible because he has changed details of his story and because Chevron has paid him more than $300,000 over two years and moved him and his family to the United States.

Days after Zambrano took over the Lago Agrio case, an Ecuadorean lawyer sent an email to Donziger reading, “The puppeteer won’t move his puppet unless the audience pays him,” Mastro said in court Tuesday. Mastro then cited payments to Guerra that he said followed that message, which Chevron has claimed were bribes.

A few minutes later Mastro asked Donziger about a meeting in 2010 that he had at a restaurant in Ecuador with Guerra, who was said to have offered to arrange a favorable judgment in exchange for a half-million-dollar bribe.

“Whatever money we had, it would not be used to bribe a judge,” Donziger replied.