One of the more interesting aspects of the $18 billion Chevron-Ecuador environmental case is not only that the oil giant recently offered a $1 billion bribe to Ecuador's government to quash the case, but how a series of monumental mistakes by the American law firm Gibson Dunn Crutcher ("GDC") and its lead partner, Randy Mastro, have increasingly imperiled the interests of a major client like Chevron and its institutional shareholders.
The latest of several recent Gibson Dunn setbacks occurred Tuesday, when an Ecuador appellate court affirmed the $18 billion judgment against Chevron. Chevron is Gibson Dunn's lead client for the last two years as the law firm has seen its profits soar off of the oil giant's Ecuador debacle, which is largely a function of Mastro's own flawed advice and unethical litigation practices as outlined below.
Gibson Dunn partners might want to wake up to Mastro's shenanigans, which have largely remained hidden from public view but threaten to stain the reputation of a prominent law firm that has always been pretty good at hiding its dark side. The same might go for Chevron's management, which continues to foot the bill for a legal strategy that creates major operational risks for the company in countries around the world.
Gibson Dunn has long advertised itself as the "dream team" for clients in serious trouble. It boasts that lawyers like Mastro, Andrea Neumann, Scott Edelman, and William Thomson are capable of mounting "rescue" operations for corporations facing major liability for environmental and other abuses committed against vulnerable peoples like the indigenous and farmer communities of Ecuador's Amazon. If the law is in the way of a client's interests, GDC claims it will work to either change the law or maneuver around it. The firm is notorious forthrowing a client's lawyers under the bus for not being "aggressive" enough so GDC can replace them.
Hyped-out aggression is an approach that can resonate powerfully to a desperate and confused management team like the one at Chevron. CEO John Watson already has egg on his face for bungling what could be the largest environmental litigation in history. For years Chevron praised Ecuador's courts to move the venue of the case out of the U.S. Its attacks on those courts today after it lost the case seem opportunistic to say the least, particularly after Chevron submitted scientific evidence and internal audits that prove the claims of the plaintiffs. While with Mastro's encouragement Watson tries to kick the Ecuador can down the road, the risk to Chevron's shareholders continues to increase while Watson's personal conflicts of interest become ever more manifest. See here, here, and here.
(Note: Watson in 2001 helped engineer the Chevron purchase of Texaco after failing to properly vet the company for the Ecuador liability. Chevron at the time ignored repeated warnings about the case from environmentalists and others. After ignoring these warnings, Chevron vastly overpaid for Texaco by not accounting for the Ecuador liability in the purchase price. The problem for shareholders is exacerbated by the company's notoriously passive board of directors, whose members allow Watson to police himself by holding the dual titles of board chairman and CEO.)
Back to Gibson Dunn. The combination of Chevron's deep pockets and its desperate situation in Ecuador -- the country where it wanted the trial held thinking it could use political influence to engineer the "proper" result -- has created the perfect storm of opportunity for GDC's marketing and billing machine. In fact, Gibson Dunn has billed Chevron so much for its Ecuador work -- at least hundreds of millions of dollars over the past two years, according to those who know the legal profession -- that one has to wonder whether Chevron General Counsel Hewitt Pate works for his outside law firm or whether the outside law firm works for Pate. Gibson Dunn alone has at least 60 lawyers working on the Ecuador case, according to its own admission before a U.S. federal court.
Chevron also uses three other major U.S. law firms on the case (Jones Day, King & Spalding, and Boies Schiller) and at least six public relations firms to spread company propaganda that the matter is a "fraud" orchestrated by greedy American lawyers. It also uses the same political consulting firm that launched the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. What few know is that Gibson Dunn basically uses carbon copy lawsuits alleging "fraud" against almost any entity that has the temerity to challenge its powerful clients.
To get Chevron out of its mess, Gibson has targeted Ecuadorian lawyer, Pablo Fajardo, who was profiled with great sensitivity in Vanity Fair. Fajardo brilliantly has outmaneuvered Chevron's high-priced lawyers at almost every turn. The fact GDC with its hundreds of millions of dollars has been unable to shake Fajardo and his team of twenty-somethings has to be the litigation story of the year, but you won't read about it American Lawyer, which recently named Gibson Dunn its litigation firm of the year even after it suffered multiple setbacks in the Ecuador case.
More incredible is that since Gibson Dunn entered the Ecuador case on behalf of Chevron in 2009, the interests of the oil company's shareholders have endured a series of blows almost unprecedented in the annals of litigation. Consider the sad results of Mastro's latest "rescue" operation for Chevron:
Mastro also appears to use his own low-paid associates to take outrageous personal risks that he would never take himself. The official court sanctioning of Hendricks, a young graduate of Georgetown law school, is a classic example. What is distressing is that Hendricks did not bungle the Oregon case; harassment is what Mastro teaches his associates if they want to get ahead in his practice group.
The real question is whether Chevron's shareholders wake up to the fact that a) their company faces unprecedented legal risk for the obvious mishandling of the Ecuador case; b) that their own management team is in bed with a law firm that has a huge stake in convincing the company to continue the litigation even at great risk, so it can keep lubricating its billing machine; and c) that an American law firm is creating open conflict between Chevron and a foreign government, disrespecting local laws and the communities in which the company operates, all the while casting outrageous aspersions on the court system of a nation that is a U.S. ally.
Given that Chevron might face enforcement actions in countries around the world over the Ecuador liability, shareholders might want to question whether Gibson Dunn's "rescue" strategy is as good for Chevron as it for Gibson Dunn.
Follow Paul Paz y Miño on Twitter: www.twitter.com/paulpaz