SAN RAMON, CA: After a federal judge ruled on Tuesday that a $9.5 billion environmental damage award against Chevron was fraudulent, the energy company has focused its communications efforts on ensuring the significance of the judgment is understood by the public.
US District Judge Lewis Kaplan found that New York lawyer Steven Donziger and his litigation team fabricated evidence, promised $500,000 to an Ecuadorean judge to rule in their favor, and ghostwrote much of the case's final verdict during a six-week trial last November.
Morgan Crinklaw, Chevron's manager of issues management and litigation communications, was present at the trial. He said that before the ruling, Chevron's communications strategy was focused on distributing its message across an array of channels.
"We really wanted to make sure that a variety of audiences were reached with our comms," he said. "We focused on as many comms channels as possible, from social to traditional media, to tell our story and give them the facts of the case."
The case goes back to the 1960s, when Texaco began drilling for oil in Ecuador. After it ended operations there in the 1990s, residents sued the energy company over oil pollution, resulting in a $19 billion judgment that was later affirmed by an Ecuadorean court but scaled back to $9.5 billion. Chevron, which inherited the lawsuit after acquiring Texaco in 2001, had denied liability for environmental damage.
The most recent ruling took place after Chevron filed a civil lawsuit in February 2011 under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act against the trial lawyers and consultants who led what Chevron called a "fraudulent litigation and PR campaign" against the company. Through the lawsuit, Chevron sought a court declaration that any judgment against it in the Ecuador lawsuit was the result of fraud and therefore unenforceable.
As part of its evidence against Donziger, Chevron used outtakes from the documentary film Crude, which features the lawyer and chronicles the fight over pollution in Ecuador.
"We got access to those clips and were able to create our own movie showing what [Donziger] and his associates were doing in Ecuador, which includes falsifying evidence, intimidating and bribing judges, and committing fraud," said Crinklaw.
Chevron placed the videos on its blog, The Amazon Post, which the company created in 2010 as its "clearinghouse" for information about the case, he added.
"The challenge for us has been exposing the truth and getting it across to a variety of audiences that are inclined to believe what the other side was trying to say," said Crinklaw. "Through a persistent and thoughtful comms approach, we have been able to do that. This victory was won in court of law, but we believe we have also won in the court of public opinion as well."
As the case goes on, Chevron will continue to publish on The Amazon Post, Twitter, and other social media platforms as part of its PR outreach.
"In our comms, we will continue to highlight the judgment, to put out the evidence we have obtained through the legal process, and show that this case was about fraud and that there were no underlying merits," said Crinklaw.
Chevron worked with various PR agencies on the matter, according to Crinklaw, who would not disclose what firms supported it.
Singer Associates is working with Chevron on a community news site in Richmond, CA, the Richmond Standard, which launched in January.
The Ecuadorians do not accept the court's ruling, according to a statement from Han Shan, a US spokesman for the plaintiffs.
"The affected communities long ago gave up hope that a US court would provide them relief from Chevron's contamination, which has taken their loved ones, poisoned their lands, and imperiled their cultures," he added.
Over 40 environmental and human-rights organizations denounced Chevron's RICO suit, according to Amazon Watch's online and operations director, Paul Paz y Mino, who has overseen the campaign against Chevron for the past seven years. Amazon Watch is a nonprofit human rights and environmental group that has campaigned in support of the affected Ecuadorian communities.
"In this case, Chevron has spent millions for a PR talking point and in the course of that, attempted to destroy the reputation of human rights activists, organizations, and Ecuadorian victims; it is an incredible travesty of justice and is a violation of human rights," said Paz y Mino. "The ruling itself labels Amazon Watch and other organizations as co-conspirators for doing the public work of explaining what happened in Ecuador for all these years and accompanying the communities."
Donziger plans to appeal the New York ruling, and an international arbitration tribunal in The Hague is weighing Chevron's request for a finding that Ecuador, not the oil company, is liable for any environmental damage.
"With all due respect to the court, this is an appalling decision resulting from a deeply flawed proceeding that overturns a unanimous ruling by Ecuador's Supreme Court," Donziger said in a statement. "We believe Kaplan is wrong on the law and wrong on the facts and that he repeatedly let his implacable hostility toward me, my Ecuadorian clients, and their country infect his view of the case."