After 16 years, oil pollution case only grows murkier

 QUITO, Ecuador — The multibillion-dollar legal case between Amazon peasants and Chevron over oil pollution in Ecuador’s rain forest keeps unfolding more like a mystery thriller than a battle of briefs.

Ever since the oil giant released videos in August that were secretly taped by two businessmen who seemed to have the ambition of feasting off the expected $27 billion in damages sought, Ecuadorean officials and Chevron have accused each other of gross improprieties, including espionage.

The Ecuadorean judge hearing the case recused himself after he appeared in the recordings discussing the case and potential damages. He was returned to the case by another judge, but he was then removed again.

The two mysterious businessmen, who used watches and pens implanted with bugging devices to make the recordings, have refused to explain their motivations for going to the furtive meetings in Quito and a jungle outpost to discuss a bribery plot.

In recent days the plot has thickened further. The Ecuadorean political go-between whose taped remarks about apportioning bribes put him in the middle of the scandal, Patricio Garcia, said he was entrapped in a dirty-tricks campaign by Chevron.

In an interview, he claimed that Chevron had masterminded an industrial espionage project, with digitally manipulated videos and gangsters disguised as entrepreneurs on the prowl for contracts, intended to smear him and Ecuador’s legal system.

“This was all planned from the United States, by Chevron itself,” said Garcia, 55, a businessman and former car mechanic. He chafed at any suggestion, as laid out in recordings made public by Chevron, that he had discussed a bribery scheme that was to include President Rafael Correa’s sister, Pierina Correa, and Judge Juan Nunez, who was then overseeing the case.

It is not clear from the recordings and transcripts provided by Chevron whether any bribes were paid or whether Nunez or Pierina Correa was aware of plans to try to bribe them. Correa has denied knowing Garcia, or having anything to do with the plot, and Nunez has also denied any wrongdoing. Meanwhile, officials of the governing party and the government have characterized Garcia as a man of little influence.

Ecuador’s attorney general still somewhat echoes Garcia’s interpretation of the events caught on the tapes, saying that Chevron’s contacts with the businessmen who discussed bribes mean the company should be investigated in the United States for possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which outlaws bribery of foreign officials to obtain business.

“It seems to me that Chevron’s strategy is to delegitimize the actions of our judges,” said Washington Pesantez, the attorney general. He added that he regretted that a resolution of the lawsuit, which has dragged on for 16 years, had been delayed by a month with the disclosure of the videos. “Justice that is delayed is not justice,” Pesantez said.

The tapes were the latest turn in a legal marathon over oil contamination left by Texaco years before it was acquired by Chevron. On one tape, Nunez seems to suggest that he plans to rule against Chevron and that damages could exceed $27 billion, making it potentially the biggest environmental suit in history.

Whether Chevron avoided such an outcome by releasing the tapes may not become clear for months, or even years. Chevron gambled that the disclosure of the videos would enable it to cast doubt on the integrity of the trial and the honesty of the Ecuadorean legal system. But the tapes have also raised questions about its ties to the men who made the recordings, potentially opening the company to a new legal fight.

Taping conversations without everyone’s permission is illegal in Ecuador, and trying to bribe foreign officials is illegal under American law. But shades of gray tinge nearly everything to do with the videos. For instance, Garcia, the political go-between, said the businessmen who tied him to the bribery plot had joked about recording their meetings with a wristwatch, potentially giving them a way out if scrutiny of their tactics intensifies.

“For someone who is trying to figure out what you can learn from this, it’s not as though it yields a rational narrative,” said Ralph G. Steinhardt, professor of law and international affairs at George Washington University Law School in Washington, who has been following the case. “In trying to appreciate the complexities of this case, you need to have the skills of a poker player rather than the skills of a lawyer.”

Chevron says that it neither coached nor paid the businessmen to make the tapes, and that it did not edit the material, though it did give one of the men, Diego Borja, an undisclosed amount for moving and living expenses so he could safely move his family out of Ecuador. Company spokesmen say that when Borja, an Ecuadorean logistics contractor working with an American businessman, brought tapes of three meetings to Chevron, company officials urged him not to go to more meetings because doing so could be dangerous.

“Chevron had no involvement in the videotaping,” said Kent Robertson, a company spokesman. “Chevron referred this matter to the U.S. Department of Justice and Ecuador’s prosecutor general after making every reasonable effort to verify the evidence that was presented.”

Borja went back for a fourth meeting, taped it, and gave more evidence to the company. But no one has yet explained what motivated him and his partner, Wayne Hansen, an American, to travel around Ecuador meeting officials and collecting evidence of a bribery scheme, especially one in which they stood to gain lucrative contracts.

Neither the men nor their lawyers would talk, although Borja’s lawyer, Cristina C. Arguedas, released a statement: “Diego is an outstanding and proud Ecuadorean who came forward on his own to expose corruption. He will answer all questions in a fair proceeding.”

The video and transcripts have been open to interpretation. Still a mystery, for instance, is why supposedly well-connected Ecuadoreans with knowledge of the case would discuss bribes in exchange for government cleanup contracts to come out of a settlement in the Chevron case.

Chevron hopes to delay any future payments for many years; since it has no major assets in Ecuador, it would not be easy to get it to pay, even if it lost. Had the Ecuadorean officials checked Borja’s background, they would have seen that he had been a contractor for Chevron for years.