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Defense lawyer moves to drop out of Chevron fraud suit

By Casey Sullivan

(Reuters) - The lawyer who has been defending controversial plaintiffs attorney Steven Donziger in a lawsuit by Chevron Corp , filed a motion on Friday to withdraw as counsel, citing Donziger's inability to pay his legal bills.

Attorney John Keker has been representing Donziger since 2011 in a case brought by Chevron alleging that Donziger fabricated a long-running lawsuit alleging Chevron polluted an Ecuadorian rainforest. Keker asked to withdraw as Donziger's attorney in an 11-page motion that blamed New York federal court Judge Lewis Kaplan for Donziger's financial predicament.

Keker's request to drop out of the case comes as Chevron aggressively pushes to overturn a $19 billion judgment that it polluted the rainforest. In its lawsuit against Donziger, Chevron claimed he used fraudulent tactics such as coordinating the ghost writing of an environmental report that was held up as independent.

Keker said Donziger owes him and his San Francisco law firm, Keker & Van Nest, $1.4 million in unpaid fees. He said Kaplan allowed Chevron to conduct what he called a prolonged and expensive litigation process with "dozens of fact depositions ... from Park Avenue to Peru," which caused Donziger's bills to pile up.

Keker said he filed a request in March that Kaplan better manage the trial to control legal costs, but Kaplan never responded. Keker characterized the court as a hostile environment for Donziger and his defense lawyers.

"Chevron's litigation tactics, which this court has endorsed and encouraged throughout these proceedings … have made the costs of this litigation unsustainable to Donziger," said Keker.

"More significantly, to even stay alive in this case … will cost another six to ten million dollars in attorney time and costs. With revenues in the billions of dollars, Chevron can afford to litigate this case ‘until hell freezes over.' But Donziger can't."

Going forward, Donziger will represent himself in the Chevron case, Keker said.

Donziger issued a news release on Friday addressing Keker's withdrawal.

He said he will try to find the resources to rehire his counsel or to find substitute counsel, but he was not hopeful. He said Chevron has filed papers indicating it has roughly 2,000 legal personnel and 60 law firms working to evade compliance with the Ecuador court judgment, including 114 lawyers at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, the primary Chevron law firm handling the New York case.

In contrast, Donziger said that he works out of his two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan with a non-legal assistant.

A Chevron spokesman said the company's conduct in trial has been "proportionate to the magnitude of the fraud that's been committed against our company and our shareholders."

Randy Mastro, a lawyer for Chevron, said Keker's move did not surprise him.

"No reputable person, organization, or government would want to be associated with this scheme," he said in a statement.

Judge Kaplan was unavailable for comment on Friday.

(This version of the May 3 story corrects the spelling to Donziger throughout instead of Donzinger.)

(Reporting By Casey Sullivan. Editing by Andre Grenon and Grant McCool)

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