Shakedown 101: The Campus Speaking Tour of a Convicted Fraudster

For most institutions, you would think that inviting a speaker who was found guilty of “egregious fraud” probably isn’t a good idea. Yet it seems that never occurred to anyone at Harvard Law’s Institute for Global Law and Policy, nor at Georgetown’s Center for Latin American Studies.

The speaker in question is Steven Donziger, the controversial lawyer at the center of a $9.5 billion case against Chevron for environmental damage in Ecuador that occurred decades ago. Last week he appeared on a Harvard Law panel to discuss the 22-year litigation, and he made a similar appearance at Georgetown University Tuesday afternoon – a strong start to what is shaping up to be a veritable college speaking circuit.

This is worrisome because Donziger was found to have used some downright dirty tactics in his attempt to shakedown Chevron. The case is, admittedly, quite complicated, but in short, here’s what happened. Environmental activists, with the blessing of the Ecuadorian government, coordinated a $19 billion judgment against Chevron for abuses committed by Texaco, which Chevron acquired in 2000. Ecuador has little judicial independence, so the case inevitably went against Chevron, even though the monetary figure was eventually halved to $9.5 billion – still a huge sum.

Donziger led the legal team against Chevron. We can only speculate as to his motivations, but at some point along the way he clearly lost his moral compass. Chevron took the case to U.S. soil by bringing a private RICO action against Donziger and his team. Upon reviewing the evidence, the U.S. Federal District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan blocked the judgment against Chevron and pegged Donziger with breaking “federal racketeering laws, committing mail and wire fraud, money laundering, witness tampering and obstruction of justice.”

Unsurprisingly, Donziger appealed the judge’s ruling — oral arguments began last Monday — so it’s clear he isn’t out there imploring students to learn from his mistakes and stay on the straight and narrow. On the contrary, he has been exposed on video telling law student interns that “We need to make facts that help us, and the facts that we need don’t’ always exist.”

That’s quite an ethics lesson. Is this really the type of character we want speaking to our next generation of lawyers?

This reflects abysmally on both colleges. They insist that their events were merely panels and that Donziger was invited to be one voice among several, but it’s not hard to see which side the events skew toward. The Facebook Event at Harvard Law called Donziger “the primary target of Chevron’s retaliation campaign,” and Georgetown’s event says Chevron has been running an “international smear campaign.” In neither case was a representative from Chevron present to present a more balanced discussion.

Never mind that Donziger is the one who has looked more like the villain in U.S. legal proceedings so far. Never mind that Donzinger and company have been waging a smear campaign against Judge Kaplan and many veteran legal reporters covering the case.  Never mind that one of the nation’s top law firms, Patton Boggs, withdrew its involvement in the case a year ago with “regret” for the part it played against Chevron. The list of evidences against Donziger goes on, but you wouldn’t hear any of them from the fine folks at Harvard or Georgetown – two of the top law schools in the country. We should expect better from them.

Erik Telford is the president of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.