Chevron seeks e-mail logs in Ecuador suit


David R. Baker – San Francisco Chronicle –

Date of publication: 
28 September 2012

As part of a long-running lawsuit in Ecuador, Chevron Corp. has sent subpoenas to Google, Microsoft and Yahoo seeking e-mail logs and computer usage data for 101 e-mail addresses, at least one of which belongs to someone not involved in the case.

The subpoenas, served this month, are Chevron’s latest effort to prove that a $19 billion judgment against the oil company in Ecuador was the result of fraud. An Ecuadoran judge last year ruled that Chevron should pay to clean up a portion of the Amazon rain forest where Texaco, bought by Chevron in 2001, used to drill for crude.

Chevron has demanded that the three Internet companies turn over nine years’ worth of detailed online information involving the e-mail addresses of people who traded messages with the legal team suing Chevron.
Lawyers object

The opposing lawyers, however, insist that some of the addresses belong to former interns no longer working on the case. Other addresses belong to people who have expressed an interest in the lawsuit but were never involved in it, said Karen Hinton, spokeswoman for the lawyers suing Chevron.

“It is clear that Chevron is engaged in a coordinated scheme to invade the privacy of dozens of people who have tried to hold the company accountable for environmental crimes, or who just simply wanted information about the case,” she said.

The latter category includes an Australian law professor and blogger who has been critical of Chevron’s handling of the lawsuit. Kevin Jon Heller, a senior lecturer at Melbourne Law School, insists that he was never involved in the case and traded only two e-mails with one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Steven Donziger.

“Tactics like this need to be exposed and resisted, no matter who uses them or whom they target,” Heller wrote in a post on the blog Opinio Juris.

Heller contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which then called Chevron’s lawyers at the firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. After several discussions, Chevron dropped its request for his data.

Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson said the company is trying to find out whether some of the e-mail addresses actually belong to key figures in the case, including the opposing side’s lawyers and a court-appointed expert whom Chevron accuses of fraud. Some of the participants, he said, have set up multiple e-mail accounts, and tracing the communication among them could help the company prove its contention that the lawsuit is nothing more than an elaborate extortion scheme.
Fraud alleged

“It’s very much in keeping with trying to defend this company against a $19 billion fraud,” Robertson said. “We’re trying to get to the bottom of that sort of conduct and understand how it contributed to the fraud.”

In Heller’s case, Chevron dropped its demand for his information once the company was satisfied that his Gmail address was indeed his and that he had no involvement in the case.

“It became a moot point,” Robertson said.

Chevron has already persuaded several U.S. judges to give it access to many of the opposing lawyers’ e-mails, memos – and even Donziger’s own journal. The company also obtained outtakes from a documentary movie about the lawsuit.

The lawsuit’s roots reach back to 1964, when Texaco started drilling for oil in a corner of northeastern Ecuador known as the Oriente.

The company worked in partnership with state-owned Petroecuador until 1992. When Texaco pulled out of the country, it reached an agreement with the government to clean up a portion of the area, leaving the rest to Petroecuador, which continued to pump oil there. Oriente residents sued Texaco in 1993 arguing that toxic residue from oil field operations had poisoned their soil and water and triggered a wave of illnesses. Chevron inherited the suit when it bought Texaco in 2001.

A Google spokeswoman said the search company complies with valid legal requests, although it will try to narrow any requests that the company considers too broad. The company also notifies affected users whenever possible. Heller, for example, first learned about Chevron’s subpoena after Google sent him an e-mail telling him about it.

Microsoft declined to comment for this story, and Yahoo did not return calls seeking comment.

“This subpoena is a really good example of why rules need to be put in place to protect our private and sensitive digital information,” said Aden Fine, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU who worked with Heller. “Neither the government nor private litigants like Chevron should be able to access this private information without first satisfying constitutional scrutiny.”

David R. Baker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: dbaker [at] sfchronicle [dot] com