Chevron subpoenas in Ecuador suit challenged in court

Chevron Corp. (CVX), which faces a $19 billion damage award in an Ecuador environmental case, shouldn’t be allowed to obtain information about the e-mail accounts of lawyers, activists and scholars in contact with plaintiff attorneys, a privacy rights group told a judge.

Marcia Hofmann, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins in San Francisco today to block Chevron subpoenas, saying that free speech and privacy rights are at stake. She alleged that the company is trying to harass and intimidate activists associated with the legal effort to hold Chevron responsible for environmental damage in the Amazon basin.

“These people feel intimidated by this,” said Hofmann, who’s trying to shield the identity of people she refers to as “John Does” from Chevron in records it seeks from Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. “They’re all engaged in political activity, and it’s public criticism against Chevron.”

Chevron is seeking information about when and where people logged into e-mail accounts, not the content of e-mails, to use as evidence in its racketeering lawsuit against Steven Donziger, the lead U.S. legal adviser for the Ecuador plaintiffs, said Theodore Boutrous, Chevron’s lawyer. The San Ramon, California- based company alleges Donziger and others improperly influenced a court expert in the case and committed fraud to win the damages award.

‘Innocent Bystanders’

The fight over the subpoenas isn’t a free-speech battle, Boutrous said. Rather than “innocent bystanders,” the “John Does” were part of the “pressure campaign” against Chevron and their e-mail activity might provide proof of how the plaintiff lawyers funneled information to the Ecuador judge and ghost-wrote his decision against Chevron, Boutrous told Cousins.

“We know who every one of these people are,” Boutrous said. “We allege some of them at least, many of them, were part of the scheme, wittingly or unwittingly.”

Donziger denies wrongdoing and the oil company is attacking him to avoid responsibility for the damages and trying to intimidate people who it thinks don’t have the resources to fight back, Karen Hinton, a spokeswoman for the Ecuadorean plaintiffs, said in an e-mail today.

Cousins said the underlying case, which is being litigated in several countries and is the subject of international arbitration, involves political issues. He questioned whether there should be heightened concern about free speech rights.

‘Contract Dispute’

“This is not a run-of-the-mill contract dispute,” Cousins told Boutrous. “I’m not sure I agree with your assessment” that the case is about something “agnostic and commercial. Isn’t this a political case?” He didn’t say when he would rule.

The damages against Chevron were awarded in 2011 by a provincial judge in Ecuador in a lawsuit brought by villagers who said the company was responsible for toxic pollution from oil drilling by Texaco Inc., which Chevron acquired in 2001. Chevron, the world’s fourth largest oil company, says it cleaned up its portion of the region and was released by the Ecuadorean government from future damage claims.

The company has no assets in Ecuador; the plaintiffs have gone to court in Canada, Brazil and Argentina to seize Chevron funds.