Chevron's Private Investigation Firm Attempts to Recruit Independent Journalist To Spy in The Amazon

'If I went to Lago Agrio as myself and pretended to write a story, no one would suspect that the starry-eyed young American poking around was actually shilling for Chevron.'

An exposé in theAtlanticmagazine reveals how one of the world’s largest private investigation firms, Kroll, hired by oil giant Chevron, tried to recruit an American journalist to undermine a massive $27 billion lawsuit against Chevron brought by the residents of the Ecuadorian Amazon. We speak with the journalist, Mary Cuddehe, and with Han Shan, the coordinator for Amazon Watch’s Clean Up Ecuador campaign.

Shop ▾

AMY GOODMAN:We begin today with a new twist in the 17-year legal battle between oil giant Chevron and the residents of the Ecuadorian Amazon, who say decades of reckless oil drilling have taken a deadly toll on their health and their environment. They accuse Texaco, now Chevron, of dumping over 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into the rainforest. Chevron now faces a $27.3 billion lawsuit.

An article in the latest issue of the Atlantic magazine reveals how a private investigation firm, hired by Chevron, tried to recruit an American journalist to undermine the high-profile lawsuit. According to the first-person account of Mary Cuddehe, the investigative firm Kroll flew her to Colombia and offered her $20,000 to spend six weeks in Lago Agrio, the jungle town in Ecuador where the trial is being held. They wanted her to say she was an independent journalist, while spying for Chevron, and find out if the plaintiffs in the lawsuit had "rigged" a health study that found the community suffered abnormally high cancer rates. But Mary Cuddehe said no. She refused the offer to become a corporate spy.

The article is called "A Spy in the Jungle," and Cuddehe writes: "There was a reason they wanted me. With one Google search, anyone could see that I was, in fact, a journalist. If I went to Lago Agrio as myself and pretended to write a story, no one would suspect that the starry-eyed young American poking around was actually shilling for Chevron."

We invited Chevron to come on the program, but they declined. Chevron spokesman Kent Robertson did, however, not directly address Mary Cuddehe’s claims, but acknowledged hiring Kroll. Robertson said in a statement to Democracy Now! that "It should come as no surprise that we have hired an outside investigative firm to help document the fraud being perpetrated by the plaintiffs’ lawyers and their associates in this case. There are now numerous documented examples of falsified expert reports, fraudulent evidence, unsubstantiated health claims and collusion with court experts," he wrote.

Mary Cuddehe is based in Mexico City. She joins me now via Democracy Now! video stream. We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Mary Cuddehe.

MARY CUDDEHE:Thanks. It’s good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN:We are also joined in the studios in San Francisco by Han Shan, coordinator of the Clean Up Ecuador campaign at Amazon Watch.

But Mary, let’s begin with you. Why don’t you explain what happened, how you were approached by Kroll, who was hired by Chevron?

MARY CUDDEHE:Right. As I wrote in my story, I was in Cancún. I’m a freelance reporter, and I was in Cancún working on another story. It was the typical thing where I was writing for a magazine that has a low budget, and it seemed like I was barely going to break even on the story. I was sort of despairing about the state of journalism. Then I got this phone call, it was kind of like magic. I found out about this job. So I went back to Mexico City, and I got in touch with someone from Kroll. And they didn’t want to speak too much over the phone, so they offered to fly me out to Bogotá for the weekend. So I showed up at this luxury hotel and spent a weekend being briefed on the case. That was how I first found out about the job.

AMY GOODMAN:Who spoke to you? What did they say?

MARY CUDDEHE:They spoke about the details of the case, they gave me the background. When I first found out about it, I knew almost nothing. I basically went to Bogotá sight unseen. They just briefed me on the background of the case, and they told me what they would want me to do.

AMY GOODMAN:And what exactly did they tell you?

MARY CUDDEHE:Everything that’s in my story is basically what I was told. I was told about this health study that Chevron suspected had been done, that there was fraud in this health study, and they wanted me to go down to Lago Agrio and investigate who had done the interviews and whether there had been collusion between the Spanish human rights activists who had conducted the health study and the plaintiffs in that study.

AMY GOODMAN:And you were to say you were who?

MARY CUDDEHE:I was to say that I was myself. And that was ultimately the reason that I couldn’t do it. I didn’t think that I was being asked to do anything illegal at any point. I just felt that if I went down to Lago Agrio and was investigating, doing an investigation for Chevron and acting as a journalist, I felt that I was walking into territory, as a journalist, I wouldn’t be able to come back from. That was ultimately why I had to say no.

AMY GOODMAN:The person who recruited you, Mary, you called him "Sam" in the piece?


AMY GOODMAN:Tell us who he was and how he identified with you.

MARY CUDDEHE:As I wrote in the story the people that I met from Kroll were very friendly and upfront, and we kind of all got along. They were very nice. We went out to dinner. We went dancing the first night I was there. And it was a very warm and welcoming atmosphere. And I didn’t feel at any time that I was being lied to, nothing like that happened. I felt that they were totally upfront with me. But that was pretty much the extent of it.

AMY GOODMAN:We’re talking to Mary Cuddehe, the American journalist who was approached by Kroll. Mary, tell us the significance of Kroll, what Kroll is.

MARY CUDDEHE: Kroll bills itself as a risk management company. It has offices all over the world. And at least in the capacity that I was going to be working for them, it was going to be as a private investigator.

AMY GOODMAN:And were they very clear on exactly how they wanted you to identify yourself when you went down?


AMY GOODMAN:What did they say exactly?

MARY CUDDEHE:Well, these were preliminary talks, but I was going to go down there and be myself. Just say that I was a reporter, ask questions and do the investigation under that premise.

AMY GOODMAN:Did you meet anyone there, or did they tell you about anyone, who’s doing what they were asking you to do?


AMY GOODMAN:So you would be their first spy posing as a journalist?

MARY CUDDEHE:As far as I know, yes. I noticed the way that the plantiffs’ attorneys have kind of seized on my story. I didn’t believe that I was asked to do anything illegal. I mention that because it was a tough decision to make, honestly, because $20,000 is a lot of money for someone in my position, and it did seem like an interesting case. But ultimately, I had to say no, because I just didn’t feel that as a journalist it was something that I could do, ethically, and then return to journalism.

AMY GOODMAN: Sam, the person who was your contact, said, "There is no other Mary Cuddehe. If you don’t do this job, we’ll have to find another way." What does that mean?

MARY CUDDEHE:It’s unclear.

AMY GOODMAN:What has been Chevron and Kroll’s response to your piece in the Atlantic, "A Spy in the Jungle."

MARY CUDDEHE:I’ve had no response. The response that you just read is the first that I’ve heard from Chevron or Kroll.

AMY GOODMAN:Mary Cuddehe, anything else you would like to add on this case and your reflections on it since they asked you to work for them, for Kroll, working for Chevron, in the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador?

MARY CUDDEHE:It was interesting. The story that was published in the Atlantic was originally a proposal. I wanted to go down to Ecuador and actually do the investigation myself. I felt that that was the way that I could have the best of both worlds. I could still go down to Ecuador and be a journalist and do the investigation transparently. So I sent this proposal to the Atlantic, and they came back and said, "You might see this as a proposal, but we see this as a story." At that point, I just said, "OK, let’s publish it." Obviously it’s not in the cards for me to go down there right now.

AMY GOODMAN:Mary Cuddehe, thanks for joining us... Han Shan is our guest, coordinator of the Clean Up Ecuador campaign at Amazon Watch.

Han Shan, can you respond to the recruiting of Mary Cuddehe on behalf of Chevron, by the largest private security firm, Kroll?

HAN SHAN:Well, first of all, I’m gratified, and I think all the people who have followed this case for a long time and want to see justice in the case are glad that Mary did the right thing. But what’s disturbing is that this is just the latest revelation in a pattern of activity of very shady, very corrupt and increasingly, it looks like, illegal activity by Chevron to undermine the rule of law in Ecuador and and deny justice to people who have already suffered for an awful long time because of the company’s neglect. And we want to see transparency. We would invite Mary to go back, if she can, and investigate, as a journalist, and dig up the truth, because that’s the one thing that Chevron is so afraid of.

AMY GOODMAN:I said Kroll was a security firm. It’s actually an investigative firm. She referred to the man named Sam and described him, though didn’t give his full name. You have been writing about who you believe he is.

HAN SHAN:Yeah, I think Mary left a number of details, a number of clues throughout the article that point very clearly to Sam Anson, a former freelance writer. She spoke about him writing about race and hip-hop in the early '90s, struggling and writing -- or early 2000s -- writing for various alternative magazines. And we found it's pretty clearly Sam Anson who’s the head of their Latin American bureau based out of Miami. It fits the profile perfectly. We’ve tried to send a message to Sam that he has an opportunity to step back from the dark side.

What Chevron has tried to do in Ecuador around this case is basically battle absolutely everything but the evidence, everything but the truth of the matter. They’ve tried to attack the plaintiffs’ lawyers. They’ve tried to impugn the motives of the plaintiffs, saying it’s a giant shakedown. I’ve just returned from the Ecuadorian Amazon, where the evidence of Chevron’s massive contamination throughout the rainforest, affecting the health and the well-being and the economic livelihood of tens of thousands of people, is bubbling up from beneath the surface of the ground everywhere you look, and it’s still there for anyone to see. I’m sure if Sam Anson traveled and if his Kroll associates traveled where I did and met the people that I did, he’d be thinking twice about helping Chevron undermine the rule of law in the way that they’re trying to.

AMY GOODMAN:Give me some history, Han Shan. It was Texaco that was involved with the polluting. Explain what happened.

HAN SHAN:Well, Texaco first arrived in Ecuadorian Amazon in 1964. From 1964 'til 1992, they operated, but they operated in a way that they would have never gotten away with almost anywhere else. They deliberately dumped over 18 billion gallons of sludge and crude, toxic waste water, into rivers and streams relied upon for bathing and drinking by tens of thousands of people. They abandoned more than 900 toxic waste pits throughout the region filled with crude and sludge that continued to seep into the groundwater, and they still have not cleaned that up. In the ’90s, they basically used fraudulent testing methods to induce a release from the Ecuadorian government, which they point to as releasing them from liability. But the truth of the matter is, it doesn't release them from the responsibility that they have for the massive contamination that continues to this day. They didn’t actually clean it up. If you go and see the sites that Chevron claims it remediated, just beneath the surface, there is crude, there is toxic waste. Copious testing that’s been done, evidence from the trial, one of the most litigated cases in history, shows that toxic contamination still remains persistent throughout the region. It was left there by Texaco, which now is Chevron.

AMY GOODMAN:It’s interesting, on the one hand, they’re trying to get Mary to say she’s a freelance journalist, but actually act as a corporate spy paid by Kroll, which is hired by Chevron. On the other hand, they are going after an independent journalist, who we had on Democracy Now!, Joe Berlinger, to get his tape of the film he was making called Crude, to use his outtakes.

HAN SHAN:Indeed. Chevron has been employing what I would call a kitchen sink strategy. There’s a mountain of incontrovertible evidence showing that they are responsible for massive contamination, poisoning tens of thousands of people who continue to suffer. And they have done absolutely everything that they can do to evade accountability in this case -- forum shopping, trying to take this case to arbitration at The Hague, trying to depose expert witnesses on the plaintiffs’ side, and trying to corrupt the trial in Ecuador. This is just the latest revelation in a disturbing trend, a pattern of activity.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask where the case stands right now.

HAN SHAN:We’re absolutely in the final lap of a 17-year marathon. But Chevron has been very adept at delay tactics and diversions. We just need to keep a focus on where the real heart of this matter is. That's 30,000 people who have suffered now for decades and nonetheless have not given up and won’t give up until Chevron does the right thing, cleans up its mess, and compensates them for the horrific health impacts that they continue to suffer.

AMY GOODMAN:Han Shan, coordinator of the Clean Up Ecuador campaign at Amazon Watch, thank you very much for being with us.

HAN SHAN:Thanks for having me.

Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!.