Ben Hills 

An allegation of cover-up in Melbourne. A secret report in Hong Kong. Missing test results in the Virgin Islands. A fake logbook in Aruba. What does it all add up to? What does this say about Exxon, America’s largest oil company? What are the implications for the Longford Royal Commission?

In yet another court, the United States District Court in Miami, Florida, another judge is to rule on all this after a hearing on Friday.

Judge William Hoeveler is in charge of the case in which Michael Ford, the Hong Kong barrister who blew the whistle on Exxon, is trying to sue for damages, claiming the company destroyed his career. Fighting for him is a remarkable US attorney named Stuart Speiser, now aged 75, who has emerged from semi-retirement in Arizona to take up the case.

Speiser is the author of 18 law books and one of the country’s best-known litigators, having fought consumer crusades since he acted for Ralph Nader in his first and most famous victory over General Motors back in the 1960s.

In his claim filed with the court, and supported by documents from Hong Kong, the Virgin Islands and Aruba litigation, Speiser says this:

“While OIMS [Exxon’s accident-prevention and investigation protocol] may have been designed to accomplish legitimate corporate environmental and safety goals, it is used to avoid disclosure of accident investigation data required by government agencies and courts throughout the world by putting in-house lawyers from [Exxon] nominally in charge of investigations, and then claiming the results of the investigations are legally privileged.

“The clear picture that emerges from these Exxon documents is that [Exxon] took the lead in investigating the [Hong Kong] explosion, and, through [the] worldwide OIMS system they directed and controlled the suppression of evidence.

“That OIMS is a front for the obstruction of justice is apparent from its role in three other `incidents’ … the Aruba gas explosion, the [Virgin Islands] water contamination, and the 1998 Longford gas explosion in Australia. Documentary evidence is available to demonstrate how Exxon’s in-house lawyers used OIMS to suppress key evidence in those cases, just as they did in Hong Kong.”

In reply, Exxon’s lawyers have filed a scathing affidavit attacking Ford’s credibility: “As he did in his motion for sanctions, Mr Ford launches another tale of mystery and intrigue in his discussion of [OIMS]. [It contains] completely uncorroborated allegations of misconduct and conspiracy.

“Mr Ford offers absolutely no support for his reckless allegation that OIMS is used for worldwide obstruction of justice or to hide information … OIMS is simply a vehicle for continually improving Exxon Corporation’s environmental health and safety performance … it is not a vehicle for the obstruction of justice, and is not a vehicle for hiding information. This evidence is merely another example of Mr Ford’s obsessive search for any thread of information from any publication anywhere in the world that he can weave into his tapestry of fantasy, speculation and innuendo.”

Fact or fantasy – that decision will hinge on a ruling by Judge Hoeveler.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Wednesday 24 March 1999
Edition: Late
Section: News And Features
Sub section: Florida – Features
Page: 17
Word count: 563
Classification: Company/Exxon Corp Accidents And Emergencies/Accidents/Gas Law/Cases
Geographic area: Hong Kong USA