Spies Like Us: Will Secret Videotapes Derail the Chevron Pollution Case?

Last Updated Sep 2, 2009 7:30 PM EDT

The latest plot twist in the $27 billion pollution lawsuit against oil giant Chevron offers up at least one lesson: small spy-like bugging devices can be purchased from Skymall, the in-flight magazine tucked in the seatback pockets of many airlines.

The 16-year legal battle has all the trappings of Hollywood's next courtroom drama. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of a group of indigenous Ecuadoreans living in the Amazon region, alleges Texaco caused massive contamination to the rain forest and its water sources during the company's operations there. Chevron bought Texaco in 2001 and as a result, inherited the lawsuit.

The latest shocker -- just a few months from an expected verdict -- has Chevron on the offensive with allegations of bribery, a judge with a predetermined verdict and the secret tapes to prove it. The plaintiffs in the case have countered with accusations of entrapment, doctored up videos and Nixon-like dirty tricks.

Two of the videos show Ecuadorean Judge Juan Nuñez in meetings with American businessman Wayne Hansen and Ecuadorean Diego Borja, who are looking to land some of the environmental cleanup work that would presumably be awarded after a verdict is handed down. The men tape the meetings using a camera-equipped pen and watch and ask Nuñez questions about the court process. Hansen, in his unmistakable gringo accent, asks if Chevron is guilty. Nunez responds off camera, "Yes, sir."

The other video records a meeting with men who claim they are members of President Rafael Correa's ruling Alianza Pais party. The men proceed to discuss the terms of a $3 million bribery scheme, where at one point the president's sister is named.

There a number of questions involving the videotapes, including why these businessmen had the James Bond-inspired equipment with them in the first place?

More importantly, will these tapes derail a multi-billion dollar case?

There's no question, the stakes -- for all parties -- are high. Chevron stands to lose a case with a $27 billion payout or at least years of costly court appeals in its future. The secret videotapes could damage Ecuador's pursuit of most-favored-nation trade status from U.S. Congress. And then there are the indigenous tribes living in the Amazon region where the pollution originally occurred.

Chevron has fought the claims in the lawsuit through an aggressive public relations campaign, a strategy the company defends, calling the case a judicial farce that has left the company with no alternative but to speak openly about the denial of justice.

And speak openly they have. Chevron's public relations machine has been operating in overdrive in an effort offer their side of the story. The company has a blog, aptly named the Amazon Post, and a Texaco in Ecuador Web site as well as youtube channel with a variety of videos. Earlier this spring, the company hired a former CNN reporter to counter a planned "60 Minutes" report about the Amazon pollution case.

Chevron's involvement has been questioned, although the company is adamant that it had nothing to do with the secret video tapes. Chevron has said in other news reports, it doesn't know why the men made the recordings or why they turned them over to the company back in June.

The plaintiffs argue the opposite. Both have called for investigations.

Which leaves the rest of us pouring over the video tapes -- shaky hands and poor gringo Spanish galore -- in hopes of finding some clue.

For the complete videos go to Chevron's youtube channel.
  • Kirsten Korosec

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