NEW YORK -- An environmental lawyer who waged a decadeslong campaign to hold Chevron accountable for oil pollution in the rainforests of Ecuador was sentenced Friday to six months in jail for violating a federal judge’s orders related to his fight against the energy giant.
U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska, who decided the sentence after a criminal contempt trial earlier this year in New York, said Steven Donziger's commitment to his Ecuadorian clients and their cause did not justify his defiance of court orders.
“Mr. Donziger's offenses are extremely serious,” Preska said during the sentencing hearing in Manhattan federal court. “Given Mr. Donziger's repeated, willful refusal to obey court orders, it seems that only the proverbial 2-by-4 between the eyes will instill in him any respect for the law.”
The prison term, if it stands on a likely appeal, will be the culmination of a long downfall for Donziger, who is viewed as a hero by some environmentalists for his work on behalf of the people of Ecuador.
He has already been under house arrest in New York for more than two years and been disbarred for his actions in the case. At Friday's court hearing, he told the judge that he was innocent, and that he wasn't sorry.
“I’ve been fighting through the law to help the people of Ecuador for almost 30 years,” he said. “For that reason, I cannot today express remorse for actions that I maintain are ethical and legal and that I am appealing.”
Donziger and other attorneys sued Texaco in 1993 on behalf of 30,000 farmers and Indigenous people from Ecuador's Amazon region over pollution and health impacts from oil production. Chevron became the defendant when it bought Texaco.
Chevron didn't dispute that the pollution happened, but says Ecuador's state oil company, Petroecuador, was primarily responsible for the damage and that Texaco was released from liability after a $40 million cleanup.
A court in Ecuador ordered Chevron to pay $9.5 billion, but that judgment was later invalidated in New York by U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, who ruled in 2014 that it was obtained through fraud, bribery, witness tampering and other misconduct.
Kaplan also said Donziger was guilty of obstructing justice, in part on the testimony of a judge in Ecuador who said he was bribed.
Preska ruled in July that Donziger was guilty of criminal contempt of court for defying Kaplan's orders in the case, including refusing to turn over documents and electronic devices that the court sought in order to determine whether he had been profiting from the judgment against Chevron, which he is barred from doing.
“Mr. Donziger's conduct was a pattern of contumacious behavior that bore out over the better part of a decade,” Preska said. “In our system of laws, it was a most serious offense."
Donziger argued that he delayed turning over the materials while appealing Kaplan's orders, citing reasons including attorney-client confidentiality.
Donziger, 60, will remain on home confinement if his lawyers file a request within a week for an expedited appeal to stay out while he appeals his conviction.
Donziger asked to be released. He said his confinement has exacted a high cost on his wife and his son, who just started high school. He said his son “has suffered quietly for a good 15% of his life as a collateral consequence of my house arrest.”
He was disappointed by the sentence, defense lawyer Ron Kuby said after the hearing.
“But he’s been fighting this for 30 years" in many different courts, Kuby said, "and so he continues to fight.”
In court, Kuby asked Preska to view the proceedings “through eyes of Ecuadorian villagers” harmed by oil drilling, but Preska said the contempt case was not about pollution in Ecuador but “only about Mr. Donziger's disobedience of Judge Kaplan’s orders.”
Rita Glavin, the special prosecutor for the case, said, “Mr. Donziger knew what he was doing every step of the way. His conduct was not appropriate, and it was certainly not ethical.”
A message seeking comment was sent to Chevron.