By Karen Savage
A federal judge has sentenced human rights attorney Steven Donziger to six months in prison for criminal contempt in relation to a $9 billion judgment he helped win against Chevron for pollution left behind in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Over the years, Donziger showed an “astonishing disrespect for the law and rule of the court,” U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Preska said during a sentencing hearing held Friday in Manhattan.
“Only the proverbial two by four between the eyes will instill in him any respect for the law,” the judge added.
Preska denied Donziger’s request for post-sentencing bail pending his conviction appeal, but has allowed him to remain on house arrest for one week, while his legal team appeals her bail denial. If the bail appeal is denied, Donziger will await the results of his conviction appeal behind bars.
Donziger was found guilty by Preska in July on six counts of criminal contempt stemming from his work with the Indigenous and small farming communities in Ecuador, which are still dealing with oil pollution.
The 2011 Ecuadorian judgement was upheld by all levels of that country’s judiciary, however, Chevron has long-maintained the award was won through fraud and corruption. US District court judge Lewis A. Kaplan in 2014 agreed and banned Donziger from profiting from collection of the award.
Chevron later suspected Donziger was violating that ban and asked Kaplan to investigate. The judge ordered Donziger to comply with several post-judgement discovery orders, including the demand that he hand over his computer and cell phone to the court, along with any communications related to the case.
Donziger argued that the request violated attorney-client privilege and potentially endangered the Ecuadorian plaintiffs, and refused to hand over his devices pending an appeal of the order. Chevron then requested Kaplan charge Donziger with civil contempt. Kaplan agreed and later upped the charges to criminal contempt.
When the federal prosecutor in New York declined to pursue the charges against Donziger, Kaplan took the unusual step of appointing private attorney Rita Glavin to lead the prosecution. Judge Loretta Preska, a longtime friend of Kaplan’s, was appointed by the court to oversee the case. Preska in 2019 labeled Donziger, a long-time New York resident, a flight risk and placed him on house arrest, where he has remained for nearly 800 days.
“This has been a hell of an ordeal,” Donziger said in a phone interview prior to the sentencing.
“I’ve been on house arrest for two years, two months on a misdemeanor. It’s unprecedented in U.S. history. The longest sentence ever given a lawyer convicted of the supposed crime that I committed is 90 days on home detention,” Donziger said, adding that he’s already been detained more than eight times that amount.
At the time of her appointment as special prosecutor, Glavin worked at Seward & Kissel, a firm which has worked for Chevron. She has since left that firm to start her own firm, and is currently representing former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo against sexual harassment-related accusations.
Glavin told the court that Kaplan’s 2014 ruling had been affirmed on appeal, a decision the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review. She added that Donziger has still not complied with Kaplan’s orders.
“Mr. Donziger knew what he was doing each step of the way and it was unethical,” Glavin said.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals will ultimately decide when, or if, Donziger will surrender himself to the Bureau of Prisons. However the criminal contempt matter is resolved, what comes next is unclear.
When asked if his client could eventually wind up back in Kaplan’s courtroom, Donziger attorney Ron Kuby said, “the answer is nobody knows, since nothing like this has ever happened before.”
Donziger has long argued that Kaplan, a former tobacco lawyer, and Glavin and Preska are biased against him.
Glavin maintains that Donziger has received fair treatment, arguing that other attorneys charged with criminal contempt have received similar sentences.
“The charges against and detention of Mr. Donziger appears to be retaliation for his work as a legal representative of indigenous communities, as he refused to disclose confidential correspondence with his clients,” the UN Human Rights Commission’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention wrote in an opinion issued on the matter earlier this week.
Donziger, who is married and has a fifteen-year-old son, said he is grateful for the support, which has poured in from around the globe. But he is also quick to point out that the heart of the matter is bigger than just the case against him.
“This is a wholesale attack by the fossil fuel industry on the very idea of Indigenous rights and environmental justice and human rights lawyers, for that matter,” Donziger said. “They’re really using my case to try to destroy the very idea that these types of cases can be done and that lawyers, you know, have the right to do these cases.”
Chevron did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
When asked years ago when litigation against the Ecuadorian plaintiffs and their legal team would end, a former Chevron CEO said, “The short answer is it will end when the plaintiffs’ lawyers give up.”
That isn’t about to happen any time soon, according to Donziger.
“By intentionally choosing the maximum sentence possible, Judge Preska showed her true colors as a judicial agent for Chevron’s retaliation campaign, ” Donziger said. “We will rest, hug our families, wake up Monday, and fight like hell to give the Ecuadorian Indigenous peoples poisoned by Chevron the justice they deserve.”
** If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Drilled Season 5: La Lucha En La Jungla for more on oil pollution in the Amazon, how Chevron inherited the mess from Texaco, the $18 billion verdict awarded to the plaintiffs by the Ecuadorian judiciary, Chevron’s pursuit of racketeering charges against the plaintiffs and their attorneys and what led up to the criminal contempt charges against Donziger.