President Biden used his clemency powers for the first time last week, announcing three pardons and shortening dozens of sentences. A group of lawmakers led by Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern is now urging him to also pardon Steven Donziger, the embattled human rights lawyer who won a controversial multibillion-dollar case against Chevron over pollution in the Amazon rainforest —and who was recently released from a long stretch in home confinement after refusing to obey a court order to hand over evidence to Chevron during legal proceedings in a related case.
“We are deeply concerned that the legal case against Mr. Donziger personally was tied to his previous work against Chevron,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to the White House, shared with the Globe.
The lawmakers sent the letter last Monday night, hours after Donziger was released from more than two-and-a-half years of home confinement and a six-week stint in federal prison.
“I’m feeling exhilarated to have this detention finished, but I’m still astounded that it even happened,” Donziger said by phone.
Though Donziger’s confinement is over, the ten Democratic signatories, including McGovern and Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley, said that granting him clemency would send an important signal.
“This is about more than a court case — it’s about sending a message that corporate polluters need to be held accountable for breaking the law, and that they shouldn’t be allowed to harass and intimidate those who seek justice,” McGovern wrote in an email to the Globe.
The letter follows a similar call from over 100 environmental and human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Greenpeace, to pardon Donziger. Celebrities such as Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and actor Susan Sarandon have also supported him. And United Nations officials have said they were “appalled by uncontested allegations” against him and said his treatment seemed to be retaliatory.
The root of the controversy around Donziger, and of the recent outpouring of support, is a class-action suit he and other lawyers brought against the multinational energy company Texaco on behalf of some 30,000 indigenous people and farmers in the Ecuadorian Amazon nearly 30 years ago. Texaco had been drilling for oil in the region, in partnership with Ecuador’s national oil company, Petroecuador. The lawsuit accused Texaco of spilling crude oil and dumping billions of gallons of wastewater into unlined pits.
A 2001 study found elevated rates of cancer and birth defects in the region and concluded that they could be linked to oil production. McGovern traveled to the Amazon with Donziger in 2008.
“When Steve and I went to Ecuador and visited these communities together, there were places where the stench of toxic chemicals was so strong it burned my nose. There were villages where nearly every family had been affected by cancer,” said McGovern.
Chevron bought Texaco in 2001 and became the key defendant in the case; the plaintiffs asserted that it should be responsible for the cleanup because it now owned the company. In 2011, the plaintiffs won an $18 billion judgement against Chevron in Ecuadorian courts. That sum was later reduced to $9.5 billion, considered one of the largest environmental court judgments worldwide.
Chevron didn’t dispute the pollution or its massive scale but said Petroecuador was primarily responsible and that a 1998 agreement that Texaco signed with Ecuador after spending $40 million on cleanup absolved it of liability. It said the Ecuadorian government should be responsible for further remediation.
Chevron also claimed that Donziger and his team won the judgment by illegal means and in 2011 brought a civil lawsuit under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act against him and two other plaintiffs, alleging among other things that they ghost-wrote an expert report and bribed a judge. Donziger said that a consulting firm working with his team had drafted parts of the report but said that comported with Ecuadorian “law, custom and practice.” He denied the bribery charges. A US court ruled that the judgment in the Ecuadorian case was obtained through “egregious fraud” including bribery and declared it unenforceable.
An appeals court later upheld the ruling, saying Donziger and his team engaged in “a parade of corrupt actions.” An international tribunal independently concluded that the evidence of fraud was “overwhelming.”
In 2018, Donziger’s legal license was suspended.
“Steven Donziger is an adjudicated racketeer and fraudster who was disbarred for his illegal and unethical acts in the Ecuador case and held in civil and criminal contempt for flouting lawful court orders,” James Craig, communications advisor at Chevron, wrote in an email to the Globe last Tuesday.
As part of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act case, the court ordered Donziger to turn over his laptop and other personal devices to the court. Donziger refused, saying doing so would violate attorney-client privilege. The judge drafted criminal contempt charges against Donziger for failing to comply and took the unusual step of asking a private law firm to prosecute when federal prosecutors declined.
Kaplan also eschewed the standard procedure of randomly assigning a judge to oversee the case and instead picked one himself.
Donziger was deemed a flight risk and placed on house arrest while awaiting trial — a requirement the lawmakers’ letter to Biden calls “unprecedented.”
“We are unaware of such restrictions having been imposed on any lawyer in the United States facing a similar allegation,” the lawmakers wrote.
At his jury-free trial in July 2021, Donziger was found guilty on the contempt charges and later sentenced to six months in prison, the maximum sentence. His team filed an appeal which has not yet received a ruling. He served six weeks and then returned to house arrest in December 2021 under a Covid-19 early release program to finish his sentence.
A United Nations report shortly before the sentencing hearing said “the charges against and detention of Mr. Donziger appears to be retaliation” for his involvement with the Chevron suit.
“I was victimized by a new corporate playbook that allowed a private oil company to capture elements of the prosecutorial apparatus — the public prosecutorial apparatus — of our country, and bend it to serve its own private interests,” said Donziger.
Donziger said it “frankly angers and depresses” him that he has spent years in confinement, but is even more concerned that it could deter others from fighting polluting companies.
“What happened to me was much bigger than me,” he said.
By granting Donziger clemency, the lawmaker’s Monday letter noted, Biden can blunt that “chilling effect.”