Facing growing shareholder unrest over asset seizure actions and forced to testify about his alleged misconduct in the $19 billon Ecuador case, Chevron CEO John Watson again will be on the hot seat at the company’s annual meeting in late May where rainforest indigenous villagers and investors plan to confront him over his company’s toxic dumping in the Amazon.
In a stunning rebuke to Watson, U.S. Magistrate Judge James C. Francis last week ordered that he and another top Chevron legal official sit for depositions to be taken by lawyers for the villagers and one of their representatives, New York-based attorney Steven Donziger. (See the judicial order here and a Reuters article here.) Watson likely will have to answer questions about his own role in the case, including payments from Chevron officials for witness testimony, among other hot-button topics that the villagers say prove Chevron committed crimes in Ecuador.
The depositions had been furiously opposed by Chevron’s lawyers at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, who are facing their own ethical challenges in defending the oil giant’s toxic dumping in Ecuador. (See this court ruling and this blog.)
At the Chevron annual meeting, scheduled for May 29 at company headquarters near San Francisco, Watson also will try to beat back two shareholder resolutions that directly challenge his mishandling of the Ecuador liability. Currently, Chevron faces enforcement actions targeting billions of company assets in Argentina, Canada and Brazil (see here for Canada, here for Brazil, and here for Argentina) and has suffered a series of devastating courtroom setbacks, including one in the U.S. Supreme Court, which prevented the oil giant from using U.S. courts to block international enforcement efforts.
The Financial Times reported just this week that Chevron was forced to “rethink” a planned $1.5 billion investment in a huge gas field in Argentina because of the enforcement action stemming from the Ecuador judgment. Earlier, a Chevron official has testified that the enforcement actions could cause “irreparable harm” to the company’s global operations.
The enforcement actions stem from an Ecuador court finding that Chevron dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste into the Amazon rainforest, decimating indigenous groups and causing an outbreak of cancer and other oil-related diseases. A summary of the judgment, based on a 220,000 page trial record and more than 64,000 chemical sampling results, can be found here.
A video about Chevron’s human rights abuses in Ecuador can be viewed here while a 60 Minutes report on the legal battle – which documents how Chevron installed pipes to deliberately run oil sludge into streams – can be viewed here.
Watson also is under fire for subpoenaing the files of several shareholder critics and alleging they are in a “conspiracy” with the Ecuadorian villagers who won the judgment against the company. New York Times columnist Gretchen Morgenson called the Chevron counterattack against its own investors “remarkable” in the annals of shareholder activism. (See Morgenson's article here.)
Last year, a resolution critical of Chevron management for the Ecuador liability received a whopping 38% of the vote from shareholders representing a combined $73 billion worth of Chevron stock. In addition, 40 institutional investors representing $580 billion in assets sent Watson a letter asking him to settle the case.
This year, the two shareholder resolutions that cite the Ecuador liability as a driving factor call for Chevron to appoint a director with environmental expertise and to lower the threshold needed to hold a special meeting.
Watson also faces these additional problems related to the Ecuador liability:
**Conflict of interest. Shareholders and activists say Watson should step down as Chevron CEO because of his failure to properly vet the Ecuador liability when the company purchased Texaco for $31 billion in 2001. Watson was a key driver behind the controversial transaction even though Amazon Watch specifically warned the company about the size of the liability.
**Deceit of shareholders. Watson also has been accused of lying to shareholders and the markets about key facts in the case, according to a recent report prepared by a Canadian securities lawyer. Several shareholders and a U.S. Congresswoman have asked the SEC to investigate Chevron for violating its disclosure obligations under U.S. law.
**Use of Kroll to spy on Chevron adversaries. The order from Judge Francis also requires that an official from the U.S. investigative services company Kroll, which essentially functions as a private surveillance agency for Chevron on the Ecuador case, sit for a deposition. Kroll operative San Anson was caught trying to bribe journalists to spy on the plaintiffs, while evidence surfaced the company has been involved in payments to judges in Ecuador and espionage against Donziger and his family, who live in Manhattan.
**Cash for witness testimony. Under Watson’s leadership, Chevron used Miami lawyer Andres Rivero to offer a suitcase full of cash to a former Ecuador judge in exchange for favorable testimony. Chevron later admitted it paid the judge more than ten times his annual salary and moved him to the U.S., where it is helping him obtain political asylum even though he is an admitted criminal.
**The Diego Borja bribery scandal. Under Watson’s tenure, Chevron admitted that it paid former employee Diego Borja more than $2 million to try to sabotage the Ecuador trial by entrapping a sitting judge in a fake bribery scandal. The move backfired, but the company still moved Borja to the U.S., where it pays him a substantial salary – the plaintiffs call it “hush money” – with no indication he is working.
As for enforcement actions, Watson faces a series of growing headaches.
In early November, a court in Argentina ordered that the company's assets be frozen while independent analysts are beginning to take notice that Chevron faces significant litigation problems around the world related to the Ecuador judgment. Chevron has $2 billion worth of assets in Argentina, and approximately $80 million of in cash is already in a court escrow account pending resolution of the enforcement action.
While Chevron recently won a temporary stay of the enforcement action in Canada on narrow technical grounds, the court found that the Ecuadorians established jurisdiction over Chevron subsidiaries that control roughly $15 billion worth of assets. The stay is now on appeal, with a decision expected in a few months.
In Brazil, where Chevron has an estimated $4 billion in assets, the Ecuador enforcement action is going through a streamlined process in the country’s highest court, with a ruling expected sometime in 2014. Chevron also faces a lawsuit from Brazilian authorities over its spill off the coast of Rio de Janeiro in 2011.
On a more personal level, the indigenous communities in Ecuador plan to confront Watson directly at the annual meeting. In past years, Watson has turned off the microphones of the Ecuadorians to silence them.
“Chevron needs to put its pants on, start acting like a grown up and accept responsibility for its mess in Ecuador,” Watson was told last year by Luz Trinidad Andrea Cusangua, an Ecuadorian who traveled from the rainforest to speak at the 2012 annual meeting.
Two years ago, Chevron’s annual meeting in Houston erupted in chaos when five shareholder critics were arrested as they confronted the company about its human rights abuses in Ecuador. At the time, Watson was accused of "losing his head" over the Ecuador case by Rainforest Action Network’s, Maria Ramos. Last year, he prevented two villagers from showing a video of the company’s damage to their ancestral lands. Chevron security officials also blocked them from passing out copies of the video to shareholders.
“Since becoming CEO Watson has led Chevron further down a dismal path – one where its international reputation is that of a corporate criminal on the run from justice,” said Paul Paz y Miño, a director at Amazon Watch, which has been monitoring the Ecuador liability for a decade.
“At any other company with an independent Board of Directors that adhered to proper ethical standards, Watson probably would have been fired by now,” added Paz y Miño.
For more background on the case, see this update prepared by Fenton Communications.