NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former Ecuadorean judge testified on Wednesday that he ghost-wrote rulings for another judge who ordered Chevron Corp (CVX.N) to pay $19 billion to villagers whose land had been polluted by oil exploration.
The former judge was testifying at a trial in New York in which Chevron accuses U.S. lawyer Steven Donziger of bribing the Ecuadorean judges in order to win the award for the villagers.
Donziger has denied bribing the officials.
On the witness stand on Wednesday, the former judge, Alberto Guerra, said he met in 2009 with Donziger and other representatives of the villagers at Honey & Honey, a restaurant in Quito.
Guerra said another lawyer representing the villagers had already agreed to pay him $1,000 a month to ghost-write court orders for the presiding judge, Nicolas Zambrano. Zambrano, who was also being paid, agreed to expedite the case and limit procedural avenues by which Chevron could delay it, Guerra said.
Donziger was fully aware of the arrangement, Guerra said.
“Mr. Donziger thanked me for the work that I was going to do,” Guerra said of the restaurant meeting.
Randy Mastro, a lawyer for Chevron, asked Guerra if he understood he was violating Ecuadorean law by agreeing to ghost-write Zambrano’s orders.
“It hurts me to say so, but yes,” Guerra, wearing a gray suit, said calmly through an interpreter.
Guerra is a key witness in a trial in which Chevron is seeking to discredit the $19 billion award.
Chevron wants U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who is presiding over the trial without a jury, to prevent Donziger and villagers he represents from collecting the award in U.S. courts or from profiting from it in any way.
The award stemmed from environmental contamination between 1964 and 1992 at an oil field in northeastern Ecuador operated by Texaco, which Chevron bought in 2001. Chevron says Texaco cleaned up its share of waste before turning the field over to state-owned Petroecuador.
But in 2011, Zambrano awarded $18 billion to people from the village of Lago Agrio, which was affected by the pollution. The court subsequently increased the award to $19 billion to cover fees.
Mastro asked Guerra to identify Donziger in the courtroom.
Guerra said Donziger was the person who had just smiled, before describing the dark suit Donziger was wearing. “He knows me. He has seen me. We’ve been together.”
Guerra, who had presided over the Ecuadorean case before Zambrano, also testified that he and Zambrano initially offered a similar proposal to Chevron, which they thought would be more lucrative.
“Judge Zambrano and I obviously believed that Chevron was in quite a better financial situation than the plaintiffs,” Guerra told Mastro.
A lawyer for Chevron said he would relay the offer, which was rebuffed weeks later in a telephone call, Guerra said. The lawyer said that “under no circumstances would Chevron agree to any sort of agreement,” Guerra said.
Zambrano, Guerra said, was “discouraged, dispirited,” before soliciting Donziger’s team.
Reporting by Bernard Vaughan; Editing by Marguerita Choy