Ecuador judge alleges $500,000 bribe in Chevron case

A former judge in the environmental lawsuit against Chevron Corp. in Ecuador now says the plaintiffs agreed to pay a $500,000 bribe in order to win the $19 billion case.

In a sworn statement released by Chevron Monday, Alberto Guerra Bastidas also said the plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote the final, 2011 judgment, which held Chevron liable for oil-field pollution in a corner of the Amazon rain forest.

It isn’t the first time that the two sides in the long-running, bare-knuckle suit have traded accusations of bribery.

Chevron maintains that the entire case is a shakedown, and the San Ramon company is suing the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the United States for racketeering and extortion. Guerra’s statement was filed Monday in a New York federal court as part of that effort.

“Another participant in the fraud has now come forward rather than wait to be exposed by others,” said Hewitt Pate, Chevron’s general counsel.

The plaintiffs knew that Guerra’s statement was coming. Last week, they issued a pre-emptive press release accusing Chevron of offering Ecuadoran judges money in return for false testimony. In addition, they said Guerra had offered to testify on their behalf if they paid him.

“It always was obvious that Guerra wished to sell himself to the highest bidder, a fact which undermined his credibility and made him a profoundly unreliable witness,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Pablo Fajardo.

Guerra’s statement says Chevron did not pay him for his testimony. The company did, however, give him $38,000 for the time and effort he devoted to testifying. That money also reimbursed him for a computer, cell phones, flash drives and compact discs he gave to the company.

It wasn’t the only compensation Guerra received. Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson said the company paid to relocate the former judge and four of his family members to the United States, for safety reasons. Chevron has also agreed to give him and his family $10,000 each month for living expenses, plus $2,000 per month for housing and health care. The payments will continue for two years.

Like most everything else in the suit, Guerra’s bribery allegations are complicated.

Guerra was the first judge to preside over the suit, in 2003, after it moved from its original venue in New York to the small Ecuadoran town of Lago Agrio. He didn’t stay on the case long, handing it off to another judge in early 2004. In his statement, he says he doubted the validity of the plaintiffs’ claims against Chevron but let the lawsuit continue because he feared for his personal safety if he tossed out the case.

In 2008, Guerra was dismissed as a judge. He calls the dismissal unjust and says it came after he confronted other judges in the case who were issuing illegal rulings and demanding kickbacks from technical experts they had appointed to work for the court. The plaintiffs say he was dismissed for giving lenient sentences in drug trafficking cases.

Soon after his removal from the bench, Guerra agreed to ghost-write rulings for one of the judges who had succeeded him on the environmental suit, Nicolas Zambrano Lozada. A former prosecutor, Zambrano had limited experience with civil cases and asked Guerra to write his rulings for $1,000 a month, according to the statement.

In 2009, Guerra alleges, Zambrano asked him to approach Chevron and negotiate an agreement in which the company would pay both men to issue a final judgment in the company’s favor. The company rejected the idea. Zambrano then allegedly told Guerra that he had reached an agreement with the plaintiffs to speed up the case and issue rulings in their favor. Guerra claims he met with Fajardo and agreed to ghostwrite rulings that would benefit the plaintiffs, in return for the plaintiffs paying him $1,000 per month.

The following year, Zambrano again asked Guerra to approach Chevron and offer to decide the case in the company’s favor, according to the statement. Again, the company refused. So Zambrano allegedly told Guerra to offer the plaintiffs the same deal.

Zambrano soon told Guerra that he had reached an agreement with the plaintiffs’ representatives, according to the statement. If he ruled against Chevron, they allegedly agreed to pay him $500,000 from the money they would collect from the company. Zambrano said he would share some of the money with Guerra, according to the statement.

Zambrano issued the ruling in February, 2011. Chevron has refused to pay. The plaintiffs have now sued the company in Canada, Argentina and Brazil, trying to enforce the judgment.