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Harry Cassin
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Hired Guns And The FCPA

A San Francisco jury on Tuesday refused to impose civil liability on Chevron for the deaths and injuries of Nigerian protesters caused by company-paid soldiers.

The plaintiffs in Bowoto v. Chevron Corp., (99-2506, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California) accused Chevron of wrongful death, torture, assault, battery and negligence. Chevron had hired Nigerian military personnel in 1998 to clear protesters from an offshore platform. The company said the soldiers decided to shoot on their own during their rescue of 150 company workers being held hostage. The plaintiffs, however, said the soldiers “swooped down in helicopters in a dawn raid and killed two men and shot and beat others holding a protest for jobs aboard the oil platform,” according to Bloomberg.

The trial lasted four weeks and the verdict came during the second day of deliberations. “The jury upheld our position that our response was a reasonable one,” Don Campbell, a Chevron spokesman, told Bloomberg after the verdict. “Our employees have a right to be safe wherever they are at work.”

Bowoto’s lawyers said the villagers were unarmed and never threatened workers on the platform and an adjacent barge and tugboat. The protesters were seeking to negotiate with Chevron for jobs and community support after environmental damage caused by Chevron’s operations killed fish and other sources of food, the lawyers said. In addition to Bowoto, the plaintiffs included the three wives and 11 children of a villager killed on the platform and the wife and children of another protester who was detained by the military after the attack and hung by his wrists and tortured.

Chevron’s lawyers said at the trial that the case was about a company’s right to call law enforcement to protect workers. The protesters had knives, prevented workers from leaving the platform and threatened to set it on fire, the jury was told.

A statement by Chevron said, “Chevron Nigeria Ltd. requested the rescue as a reasonable response to a dangerous invasion of the Parabe platform and, the invaders were harmed when they attacked military personnel. It was never Chevron Nigeria Ltd.’s intent that anyone on the platform be harmed, and we deeply regret the loss of life and injuries that occurred.”

What’s the case got to do with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act? Well, here’s a comment we received from Andrew Woods, who blogs on the Huffington Post:

A trial in federal court in San Francisco with implications for the FCPA came to a close yesterday. Chevron was found not liable for damages caused by Nigerian security forces that were paid by the company. This verdict has led to calls to extend the reach of the FCPA to cover payments to military forces in addition to the current scope of the FCPA. I’ve outlined some of those arguments at my blog.

What do you think?

Mr. Woods, according to his Huffington bio, is “a lawyer working with the Amazon Defense Coalition in Ecuador suing Chevron over oil pollution. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he has been a teaching fellow at the Harvard College Department of Economics and has lectured at universities across the nation, including UCLA, NYU, Harvard and MIT.”

Regarding his question, this we know: Using the FCPA to ban payments to local security forces for their services would move the statute way beyond its original “obtaining and retaining business” objectives. We don’t know exactly how many American firms would feel the heat from the change, but the number is huge. It’s very common for companies doing business overseas, particularly those in the exploration, production and mining segments, to pay local police and military for protection.

But do the payments also encourage — and perhaps somehow endorse — human rights abuses? And if that’s true, shouldn’t the payments be banned? So what if Chevron and other companies are then forced to leave places where their workers aren’t safe? They shouldn’t put their workers in harm’s way to begin with. But then again, would Chevron’s leaving a country like Nigeria do more damage to the local population than if it stays?

These aren’t easy questions. Readers — we’d appreciate hearing from you. Should the FCPA ban payments to local security forces for the protection of company people and property? Let us know what you think.

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