New York Times
September 1, 2009
Chevron Offers Evidence of Bribery Scheme in Ecuador Lawsuit
By SIMON ROMERO and CLIFFORD KRAUSS
CARACAS, Venezuela — The oil giant Chevron said Monday that it had obtained video recordings of meetings in Ecuador this year that appear to reveal a bribery scheme connected to a $27 billion lawsuit the company faces over environmental damage at oil fields it operated in remote areas of the Amazon forest in Ecuador.
The videos, together with audio recordings obtained by businessmen using watches and pens implanted with bugging devices, appear to implicate Ecuadoran officials and political operatives, including possibly Juan Núñez, the judge overseeing the lawsuit, and Pierina Correa, the sister of Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa.
The recordings indicate that an Ecuadoran political operative was working to obtain $3 million in bribes related to environmental cleanup contracts to be awarded in the event of a ruling against Chevron.
It was not clear from the recordings and transcripts provided by Chevron, however, whether any bribes discussed in the recordings were actually paid or whether Judge Núñez was even aware of plans to try to bribe him. The tapes also did not demonstrate whether the president’s sister was aware of the scheme or had participated in it.
But in a statement that Chevron says illustrates that the judge’s handling of the case is flawed, Judge Núñez said on one of the video recordings that he planned to rule against Chevron by January and that damages could exceed $27 billion.
Judge Núñez, who presides over the case from a cramped office in the town of Lago Agrio in Ecuador, could not be reached for comment on Monday.
The recordings, which Chevron placed on its Web site, are the latest twist in a 16-year legal battle over oil contamination of jungle areas in northern Ecuador. Mr. Correa, a left-wing economist who rose from obscurity to become Ecuador’s strongest president in recent memory, has repeatedly sided with the plaintiffs in the case, prompting a fierce lobbying effort by Chevron in Washington to strip Ecuador of American trade preferences.
That effort failed in June when the Obama administration, seizing a chance to improve ties with Mr. Correa, allowed the preferences to continue. But the release of the recordings will focus more scrutiny on Mr. Correa, who has come under pressure over his clashes with the media and accusations of corruption involving another family member, his brother Fabricio Correa, a prominent businessman.
Alexis Mera, a legal adviser to the president, dismissed the recordings as “approaching the level of defamatory libel.” He said Chevron was benefiting from the crime of intercepting conversations without authorization, reflecting “a terrible legal strategy.”
Steven Donziger, a lawyer representing the group of Ecuadorans who are suing Chevron, contending that they had been harmed by the oil contamination, said: “I suspect this is a Chevron sting operation; there needs to be an investigation into Chevron’s role in this as much as the judge’s. I find it awfully odd that these individuals would secretly film meetings using James Bond devices like a spy watch and a spy pen.
“At the end of the day this will not affect the underlying case,” Mr. Donziger said, “other than it might cause a short delay if the judge needs to be replaced.”
Chevron said it had obtained the recordings from Diego Borja, an Ecuadoran who once worked as a logistics contractor for the company. The company said Mr. Borja had been working with an American businessman, Wayne Hansen, to secure water treatment contracts. Chevron said that neither man had been paid for the recordings, but that the company paid for Mr. Borja and his family to leave Ecuador because of concern about his safety.
“I’d like to think he brought them to us out of respect for our company and concern for what seemed to be transpiring here,” Charles James, an executive vice president of Chevron, said of the recordings in a telephone interview. “We think this information absolutely disqualifies the judge and nullifies anything that he has ever done in this case.”
In one of the recordings made in June, the political operative, Patricio García, who identified himself as an official in Mr. Correa’s political party, referred to $3 million in bribes to be split equally among the judge, the presidency and the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Mr. Correa’s party, Mr. García said, would receive the $1 million payment on behalf of the plaintiffs.
In the same meeting, Mr. García told Mr. Borja how to approach Ms. Correa, the president’s sister, about the bribe. “Tell Pierina clearly, ‘Madam Pierina, what we came to do beyond anything else is to participate, participate in the remediation. That’s why I want to make you part of this,’ “ he said.
The recordings do not indicate whether Ms. Correa was aware of the efforts to include her in a bribery scheme. Nor is there confirmation that Mr. García was in fact in contact with her.
Secret recordings of closed-door meetings have become a common feature of Ecuadoran politics. Mr. Correa, furious over the recent airing of a recording of a private conversation in his office with a cabinet minister and a member of congress, said he would request the shutdown of the television network that broadcast the recording.
“This is an attack on national security,” he said.
But while Mr. Correa takes such recordings seriously, it is not clear if the people whose conversations about contract bribes were recorded by Mr. Borja grasped the complexity of the Chevron lawsuit. For instance, appeals by Chevron could delay for years the payment of damages that could be used for water cleanup contracts.
Still, the recordings offered a glimpse into the murky world of Ecuadoran politics and business. In another reference to Ms. Correa’s ability to ensure that the contracts would be forthcoming, Mr. García said, “Pierina knows absolutely everything.”
He told Mr. Borja of a conversation he said he had with Ms. Correa, according to a transcript. “So she says: ‘Patricio, I just have to tell Rafael this one little thing, nothing else. Nothing else,’ “ he said.
Chevron said the assertion should be investigated.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: September 1, 2009
A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the name of Rafael Correa's brother as Patricio Correa. Mr. Correa's brother is named Fabricio.
Simon Romero reported from Caracas, and Clifford Krauss from Houston. Maggy Ayala Samaniego contributed reporting from Quito, Ecuador.