Only weeks ago, the 16-year legal battle between Chevron Corp. and thousands of indigenous people in Ecuador's Amazon seemed as if it were coming to a close. After years of delay, all that remained was for the judge -- there are no jury trials in Ecuador -- to deliver a verdict on whether the oil company is responsible for wide-scale contamination. But Chevron, which is widely expected to lose and could be assessed a staggering $27 billion in damages, is not going down without some legal pyrotechnics.
Earlier this week, the San Ramon-based oil giant posted videos to its website that purport to show the judge in the case, Juan Nunez Sanabria, prematurely declaring Chevron's guilt. Nunez, who maintains the tapes were manipulated and that no impropriety occurred, recused himself Friday at the request of Ecuador's attorney general, Washington Pesantez. He told reporters that he wanted to avert any effort by Chevron to delay or de-legitimize a ruling.
Chevron says the videotapes were a gift from two men who, acting independently, used a hidden camera to record them. On the tapes, the men -- a former Chevron contractor and an American businessman -- press Nunez to say how he will rule, without success. Then, as Nunez prepares to leave, one of the men again maintains that Chevron is guilty, and Nunez replies, "Yes, sir." To Chevron, that cinches the argument. But on the video, it's unclear to whom the judge is speaking and whether he is responding to the question or just trying to end the meeting.
Ecuador's government says it will investigate the allegations of misconduct. It should, and as it does, it should probe not just the judge's actions but those of Chevron. While maintaining it did not commission the tapes, the company acknowledges that it paid to relocate the two men and has provided them with "support." The company could build trust by clarifying the nature of that relationship. Further, Chevron obtained the video in June, but instead of lodging a complaint to Ecuadorean authorities, it waited weeks and then posted the "sting" to its website.
Chevron now hopes to have Nunez's past rulings annulled and commence an investigation into the court-appointed expert who determined the $27-billion damage assessment. It is also possible, however, that Nunez's recusal won't really matter. The court presidency rotates in Ecuador, and Nunez received the case from his predecessor when he took the position; another change in judges won't necessarily cause a long delay. It merely adds one more skirmish to a lawsuit of grave consequence to the suffering people of the Ecuadorean rain forest.