Published on
the San Francisco Chronicle

Judge Recuses Himself in Suit Against Chevron

David R. Baker

In this Aug. 4, 2008 file photo, Donald Moncayo, an activist from the Amazon Defense Coalition, looks at oil remains over a well that was repaired by Texaco during its operation in Ecuador's Sucumbios province. Chevron Corp. said Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2009, that it will refuse to pay if an Ecuadorian judge rules against the company in a $27 billion environmental lawsuit. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa, file)

The judge presiding over a $27 billion pollution lawsuit against Chevron Corp. in Ecuador recused himself Friday after the oil giant released videos in which he appeared to say that he would rule against the company.

Judge Juan Nuñez recused himself at the request of Ecuador's attorney general, who told a news conference Friday that he wanted to avoid further delays in the trial and stop what he said he suspects may be Chevron's efforts to discredit the court's eventual ruling.

This week, the San Ramon company released secretly recorded videos and transcripts that Chevron says show misconduct on the judge's part, as well as a possible $3 million bribery scheme connected to the lawsuit.

"I decided to remove myself from this case so authorities can continue with their work," Nuñez told the Reuters news service. "My conscience is clean. I have committed no wrongdoing. It is important that this be investigated."

Although Chevron welcomed his recusal, company executives aren't satisfied. Chevron still wants the judge's decisions in the case annulled.

"Judge Nuñez has correctly realized that his position has become untenable," Chevron General Counsel Hewitt Pate said in a prepared statement. "No judge who has participated in the type of meetings shown in the video records could possibly have rendered a legitimate decision."

Chevron faces a possible $27 billion penalty in a lawsuit over the contamination of the ground and water in a corner of the Amazon rain forest. Texaco used to pump oil there, before turning over its operations to state-run Petroecuador in 1992 and paying $40 million to clean up some of the wells. Chevron inherited the suit when it bought Texaco in 2001.

Steven Donziger, an American attorney working for the Ecuadoran villagers, said Nuñez's recusal shouldn't cause much delay in a case that, in one form or another, has already ground on for 16 years.

Since the current version of the lawsuit was filed in Ecuador in 2003, four judges have presided over it, most of them serving two-year rotations as specified by Ecuadoran law. Almost all the evidence in the case was submitted to the court before Nuñez took over, Donziger said.

"I think the judge did the right thing" to step aside, Donziger said. "All that happens now is the new judge takes over from the previous judge and picks up where the case was yesterday."

The marathon lawsuit has drawn international scrutiny for the precedent it could set. Chevron has often accused the Ecuadoran government of trying to interfere on behalf of the plaintiffs, and company executives have said they expect to lose the suit.

Then on Monday, Chevron released videotapes and transcripts it obtained from two businessmen in Ecuador, one of whom formerly worked for Chevron as a logistics contractor. In two of the tapes, a supposed representative of Ecuador's ruling party discusses what appears to be a $3 million bribery scheme to win oil-field cleanup contracts after the case is settled.

In two other, separate conversations, the businessmen discuss the case with Nuñez and repeatedly ask him whether he plans to rule against Chevron. He insists that he can't reveal the verdict in advance. But at one point, as Nuñez prepares to leave the meeting, one of the businessmen asks him if Chevron is "the guilty party," and Nuñez says, "Yes, sir."

Chronicle news services contributed to this report.


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