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TikTok hero and Chevron foe Donziger gets six months in jail

From right, Martin Garbus, Steven Donziger and Garbus co-counsel Ronald Kuby outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan on May 17.Photographer: Bob Van Voris/Bloo

(Bloomberg) -- Steven Donziger, the disbarred lawyer who once won an $8.6 billion judgment against Chevron Corp. over contamination of the Amazon rain forest, was sentenced to six months in jail for defying court orders.

The award was ultimately scrapped, and Donziger was ruled to have won it through fraud and bribery, but he has remained a hero to many environmental activists. Dozens, including Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, protested his prosecution outside the Manhattan federal courthouse on Friday, and videos tagged #freedonziger have been viewed more than 700,000 times on TikTok.

But U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska, who found Donziger guilty of six counts of criminal contempt after a trial in July, wasn’t swayed. She detailed what she characterized as Donziger’s prolonged, repeated refusal to obey court orders, musing that “it seems only the proverbial two-by-four between the eyes” would get him to properly respect the law.

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“Mr. Donziger has spent the last seven years thumbing his nose at the U.S. judicial system,” Preska said at his sentencing hearing in federal court in Manhattan. “Now it’s time to pay the piper.”

Maximum Sentence

The six-month sentence was the maximum the judge could impose.

The orders Donziger was found guilty of disobeying came in a racketeering suit filed against him by Chevron. In that case, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan found that the massive 2011 judgment Donziger won in an Ecuadorian court had been achieved through fraud and bribery. Kaplan blocked attempts to collect the award, and his ruling also led to Donziger’s disbarment last year.

Kaplan further directed that Donziger be prosecuted for failing to comply with orders that he turn over evidence and assign his right to attorney’s fees to Chevron, among other things.

Donziger used the prosecution as a forum to plead his case to a wider audience. His legal team pointed to support from Amnesty International, lawyers and law students throughout the U.S. and dozens of Nobel laureates.

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“The world has taken notice,” Donziger’s lawyer, Ron Kuby, said during the hearing.

Enthusiastic Supporters

In the days leading up to his sentencing, supporters handed out flyers promoting a protest rally outside court before the hearing, which featured pictures of Preska and her colleague U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who oversaw the racketeering trial.

“Remove Kaplan & Preska from the bench NOW!” they demanded.

Before the hearing, Donziger addressed enthusiastic supporters outside the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan.

“They are attacking Steven Donziger to attack the indigenous peoples of Ecuador who had the courage and tenacity and sophistication and determination to win a multi-billion-dollar pollution judgment against one of the worst polluters in world history, the Chevron Corporation,” Donziger said, speaking through a bullhorn.

Donziger was equally defiant before Preska. “I maintain I am innocent of these charges,” he said. “I can not today express remorse for conduct that I maintain was ethical and legal.” He said he would appeal his conviction.

Donziger’s crusade against Chevron in Ecuador attracted the support of celebrities like Waters and actor Susan Sarandon, and the award he won was widely hailed by environmental activists as a blow against the fossil-fuel industry.

The case is: U.S. v. Donziger, 19-cr-00561, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

(Updates with details on protests.)

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