Here’s a twist: the almost unbelievable tale of a human rights attorney every bit as conscienceless as the multinational he was suing.
Filed in 1993 against Texaco, later acquired by Chevron, on behalf of the powerless Ecuadorian Indians of the Oriente, the Aguinda lawsuit sought recovery for a jungle region devastated by environmental depredations and health hazards resulting from decades of oil drilling. How Steven Donziger, barely two years out of law school, a man who had never filed even a single civil suit, became the lead attorney in a case against America’s third-largest corporation makes for an interesting story. How over 20 years he strategized, maneuvering the case through courtrooms in Ecuador and New York, how he rallied Hollywood stars, music industry celebrities, independent filmmakers and environmental activists to the cause, attracting favorable news coverage from prestigious outlets like 60 Minutes and the New York Times, how he secured a $19 billion judgment—all this makes the story even more compelling. When Chevron countersued Donziger, however, and demonstrated that the young firebrand’s victory depended on fraud, witness tampering, intimidation of judges and an orgy of spoliation, well, that story becomes irresistible. Bloomberg Businessweek assistant managing editor Barrett (Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun, 2012, etc.) has been reporting this saga for years, and his familiarity with all the players, his understanding of the issues and his cool assessment of the damage inflicted by this protracted legal battle show on every page. While Donziger, his allies and methods take a beating, Barrett doesn’t let Chevron or the hardball tactics of its high-powered attorneys off the hook. Many lawyers, experts and consultants have grown rich off of Aguinda; some attorneys and their firms have been wrecked. Meanwhile, the toxic waste in the Oriente has gone untreated, the natives uncompensated. The legal fight goes on.
Imagine a true-life, courtroom version of Heart of Darkness.