By Karen Gullo and Adriana Brasileiro
Sept. 29 (Bloomberg) -- The Ecuadorean judge overseeing a $27 billion environmental lawsuit against Chevron Corp. will step down from the case.
A three-judge panel in the Nueva Loja Superior Court in Lago Agrio accepted Judge Juan Nunez’s request to be recused from the pollution-cleanup lawsuit, according to a court ruling in Ecuador. Another judge initially ruled Sept. 22 that he couldn’t step down. Nunez has presided over the litigation since last year.
Nunez, president of the Lago Agrio court, has been at the center of a controversy that began Aug. 31 when Chevron released secretly made recordings that it said showed his bias against the company. Chevron, the second-largest U.S. oil company, also alleged that Nunez was involved in a bribery scheme to steer government contracts that might result if he rules it is liable for cleanup costs.
“Given the misconduct and obvious bias on the part of Judge Nunez, it is clear that the court had to act,” Kent Robertson, a spokesman for San Ramon, California-based Chevron, said in an e-mail. “It would appear that Judge Nunez’s colleagues have manufactured a means for Judge Nunez to escape any sort of formal scrutiny or accountability.”
Nunez has denied any wrongdoing. Ecuador’s top prosecutor is investigating the matter.
The judge had been expected to rule before the end of the year on whether Chevron should pay damages for pollution caused two decades ago by Texaco Inc., which the company acquired in 2001. Chevron has filed motions seeking the judge’s removal and annulment of his rulings.
The case now goes to Nicolas Zambrano, the No. 2 judge in the Lago Agrio court, according to the ruling. Nunez and Zambrano couldn’t be reached for comment today.
“We are disappointed at the panel’s decision because we believe Judge Nunez should stay on the case,” Pablo Fajardo, an attorney for Ecuadoreans suing Chevron, said in a phone interview. “There is an investigation into the videos, and until we know what happened, there is no legal reason for Judge Nunez to be recused from the lawsuit.”
Chevron contends in the case that Texaco cleaned up its share of the pollution at its former oil fields, which were taken over by PetroEcuador, Ecuador’s state-owned oil company. Chevron says it was released from any future liability by an agreement between Texaco and Ecuador.
Lawyers for Ecuadoreans suing the company say the release doesn’t apply to private claims and that Texaco didn’t clean up some sites as required.
The case has been pending in a court in Lago Agrio, 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of the Colombian border, since 2003.
Chevron fell 79 cents, or 1.1 percent, to $70.91, in New York Stock Exchange composite trading at 4 p.m. Exxon Mobil Corp. is the largest U.S. oil company.