Ecuadorean authorities said on Tuesday they were looking into accusations by Chevron Corp that the judge involved in a $27 billion environmental lawsuit against the U.S. oil company is guilty of misconduct and involvement in a bribery scheme.
Chevron said on Monday that it would ask to have Judge Juan Nunez disqualified from the 16-year-old case, after giving Ecuadorean and U.S. officials secretly recorded video footage of Nunez talking of ruling against Chevron later this year.
Chevron said the video, posted at its TexacoEcuador YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/texacoecuador, shows a man at another meeting identifying himself as a representative of Ecuador's ruling party and discussing a $3 million bribe for contracts, of which he said Nunez would get a third.
Ecuador Attorney General Washington Pesantez was examining the case to decide what action authorities should take, a spokesman for his office said on Tuesday.
We have to analyze everything here and carry out an investigation, the country's Inspector General, Diego Garcia, told local press.
Both offices are responsible for investigating cases involving corruption of public employees and justice officials and demands made by foreign companies.
Judge Nunez dismissed allegations of bribery. My duty is to decide a sentence according to procedure, nothing more, he was quoted by a local newspaper as saying.
The Washington D.C.-based Amazon Defense Coalition, which supports the plaintiffs, said in a statement on Tuesday that the video showed Nunez had resisted the attempts to bribe him.
The plaintiffs' lawyer, Pablo Fajardo, said in the Amazon Defense Coalition statement that the timing of the release of the videos, months after Chevron said it learned of them in June, appeared related to the impending judgment by Nunez.
That's just one reason why this appears suspicious, Fajardo said.
The lawsuit against Chevron is registered in the oil town of Lago Agrio, where indigenous communities have accused the company of damaging the environment and their health while operating petroleum facilities in the region.
The plaintiffs have said that Texaco, bought by Chevron in 2001, dumped billions of gallons of polluted water in the jungle around where they live for more than two decades before the company left Ecuador in the early 1990s. The first legal action in the case was filed in New York in 1993.
An expert appointed by the Ecuadorean court said last year that Chevron should pay around $27 billion, including more than $8 billion in unjust enrichment.
Chevron has said before it will fight any adverse judgment, and has complained of political interference in the case.
WATCH, PEN CAMERAS USED TO TAPE
Chevron said in a statement on Monday that two meetings with Nunez and two meetings with purported party representative Patricio Garcia were recorded by both Diego Borja, a local logistics contractor who has worked for Chevron, and American Wayne Hansen, who has no relationship with the company.
Chevron said the four meetings were recorded without its knowledge, through small cameras in a watch on Borja and a pen held by Hansen. Borja only brought the bribery scheme to the company's attention in June, Chevron said in the statement.
Chevron said Borja and Hansen had been pursuing business opportunities in Ecuador before the potential for remediation work was brought to their attention and the meeting with Garcia was arranged to discuss it.
Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson said on Monday that the two men had not explained why they recorded the meetings.
Chevron said Borja and Hansen first met with Nunez in May after an initial meeting at Alianza Pais's Quito offices with Garcia, who said he was a representative of the party.
Garcia then arranged for Borja and Hansen to fly to Lago Agrio to see Nunez, and the two men met Nunez again at a Quito hotel in June, Chevron said.
Chevron said neither man was paid, though the San Ramon, California-based company said it had assisted Borja with the costs of relocating out of Ecuador and other support because he and the company feared for his safety and that of his family.
The Amazon Defense Coalition said in its statement on Tuesday that Borja had worked for Chevron on the environmental trial during the final eight field inspections conducted in March, and that one of his cousins works for Chevron.
(Writing by Patrick Markey in Bogota, Additional reporting by Braden Reddall in San Francisco)