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The American Prospect: The Government Gave Big Oil the Power to Prosecute Its Biggest Critic

The American Prospect

By Walker Bragman and David Sirota

A judge empowered a private law firm to criminally prosecute Chevron’s nemesis—and now the firm has admitted it worked directly for Chevron.

In recent years, the American government has given the fossil fuel industry hundreds of billions of dollars of subsidies and opened up wide swaths of public land for drilling. Now, as the climate crisis worsens, a federal judge has given a private corporate law firm with ties to fossil fuel companies the power to criminally prosecute one of the industry’s biggest foes—a lawyer who notched one of history’s biggest legal victories against a major oil company.

In 2011, Steven Donziger led the legal team that secured a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron for polluting the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador. Chevron has not paid that claim, and last year a judge appointed a private law firm to criminally prosecute Donziger for a contempt charge in a countersuit filed by Chevron in federal court in Manhattan. That law firm, Seward & Kissel LLP, has represented Chevron itself as recently as 2018, according to recent court documents.

Put another way: The government has taken the extraordinary step of giving prosecutorial power to a law firm that has worked for Chevron—and is allowing that prosecutorial power to be aimed at Chevron’s chief adversary, who has been under house arrest for 332 days.

“Legal ethics rules are complex but one overarching principle is avoiding not just actual impropriety, but also the impression of impropriety that might cause the public to lose trust in the legal profession,” said University of Pittsburgh environmental law professor Joshua Galperin. He said the appointment of Seward “certainly raises serious questions in that regard.”

Oil giants have in recent years tried to deter environmental litigation by filing their own countersuits, aiming to outspend opponents into submission. These suits have targeted public officials and others who dare to bring cases against the industry.

The Chevron case represents an escalation—potentially opening the door to future cases in which judges give private law firms the authority to imprison corporate critics, without disclosing their corporate ties to industries that are trying to shut down dissent.

Last month, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and the National Lawyers Guild filed a motion to dismiss the case in order “to avoid the miscarriage of justice and to refrain from setting a dangerous precedent for judges to be able to engage in judicial harassment and misconduct and appoint private prosecutors that are shielded from revealing a conflict of interest.”

Seward & Kissel did not respond to multiple requests for comment about its ties to Chevron and the fossil fuel industry. Chevron did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the work Seward has done for the company.


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