Judge Steps Down From Chevron Pollution Case

Last Updated Sep 4, 2009 7:28 PM EDT

The Ecuadorean judge presiding over a $27 billion environmental contamination lawsuit against Chevron has withdrawn from the case just days after the oil company claimed secretly recorded videotapes show him discussing the verdict.

Judge Juan Nuñez was videotaped during two meetings with American businessman Wayne Hansen and Ecuadorean Diego Borja, who were reportedly soliciting environmental remediation contracts. Chevron claims the videotapes, which were released Monday, show Nuñez has already decided to rule against the oil company. A third videotape, where Nuñez is not present, records men discussing a $3 million bribery scheme. The men claim they are members of President Rafael Correa's ruling Alianza Pais party.

The videotapes, recorded in May and June using a tiny camera-equipped pen and watch, threatened to derail or at least delay a case that has dragged on for 16 years. The lawsuit was originally filed in the U.S. in 1993 and refiled in Ecuador in 2003, upon the request of Chevron.

Nuñez was expected to hand down a verdict within a few months. Ecuador Prosecutor General Washington Pesantez said in a Bloomberg report today Nuñez was asked to step down to avoid any additional delays or attempts by Chevron to undermine the proceedings.

The judge's decision to step down clears the path for the legal proceedings to continue uninterrupted, said Steven Donziger, attorney for the plaintiffs, in a statement today. He adds the judge's action validates the effective functioning of the Ecuadorean legal system.

A new judge in Lago Agrio, Ecuador will takeover the case, meaning it's unlikely Chevron will get what it ultimately wants: a dismissal.

That doesn't mean the company won't keep trying to cast doubt on the fairness of the case. Comments from Hewitt Pate, Chevron's vice president and general counsel, hint at the impending fight.

After commenting in a statement about Nunez' correct decision to step down, Pate says two major issues remain. Chevron wants prior rulings of the judge annulled including those involving court appointed expert Robert Cabrera. Cabrera recommended in November 2008 the judge presiding over the case assess damages of more than $27 billion.

Pate added an independent investigation of the video recordings is just as important following the judge's removal.

Nuñez has said the videos were manipulated. Chevron insists the videotapes are legitimate and provide further proof to its claim that the case has been a judicial farce.

Donziger has also called for an investigation -- this one aimed Chevron's role in the video recordings.
  • Kirsten Korosec

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