Inside Chevron's Discovery Campaign in Ecuador:
CRUDE AWAKENING by Michael Goldhaber
Artwork by Elizabeth Williams
Michael D. Goldhaber, The American Lawyer
August 20, 2014
In 2009, Chevron Corporation was on a path to losing a $9.5 billion judgment in an Amazon courtroom for oil pollution in Ecuador. What the plaintiffs saw as the world's greatest environmental trial, the company perceived as the world's greatest litigation fraud. Either way, it evolved into the world's most intensive dispute. To expose the truth about the Amazon trial—and to neutralize the Ecuadoreans' indomitable lawyer Steven Donziger—Chevron would eventually hire more than 2,000 professionals from 60 law firms.
Paul Dans was far from the most illustrious. Sure, he had the credentials—two degrees from MIT, years of training as an associate at Dewey & LeBoeuf and Debevoise & Plimpton. But when the music stopped in 2009, Dans was passed over for partnership at a less lofty firm, and he found himself calling old contacts for contract work. He got a call from Miami's two-partner Rivero Mestre, which represented one of the in-house Chevron lawyers indicted by Ecuador. They wanted a fresh pair of eyes on the case file. In the early summer of 2009 they offered Dans $85 an hour—less than 5 percent of the rate of the top biller at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which has led Chevron's U.S. counter-strategy. Dans said no. At summer's end his recruiters came up to $100 an hour, and Dans relented.
Chevron regards the Amazon case as a blood libel, and it is willing to spend what it takes to clear its name. By The American Lawyer's estimate, America's third-largest company has spent more than half a billion dollars on litigation costs, which is likely a record for a single dispute. Yet to catch a renegade like Donziger, who worked at his kitchen table in a two-bedroom condo on New York's Upper West Side, it took another lawyer off the midtown grid, who often worked at his kitchen table in a two-bedroom rental two blocks away. Dans started tugging on the right thread, and Gibson Dunn kept tugging. By the time Chevron and Gibson were done with their ingenious discovery campaign, Donziger would be stripped virtually naked.