gets its shot
A judge rules the oil firmBy Rob Perez
can submit advance written
questions in response
to the state's suit
Chevron Corp. gets to question Gov. Ben Cayetano about whether the state filed a $2 billion antitrust lawsuit against Hawaii's oil companies to bolster his 1998 re-election bid.
But Chevron must provide the questions in writing and in advance, a federal judge ruled yesterday.
U.S. Magistrate Francis Yamashita blocked Chevron's attempt -- at least for now -- to personally question Cayetano. The company particularly wanted to be able to ask follow-up questions, a standard part of oral depositions.
Chevron had sought court permission to take oral testimony from the governor Oct. 27 as it builds its defense against the lawsuit.
Chevron, Hawaii's market leader, and other oil companies have been accused of conspiring to artificially inflate local gas prices and to fraudulently conceal the alleged conspiracy from the state. The companies have vigorously denied the charges.
Yamashita agreed with the state's position that high government officials have limited immunity from giving oral depositions that could inconvenience or pressure such officials while carrying out their executive duties.
He said Chevron is entitled for now to query Cayetano in writing. If the company subsequently can demonstrate a sufficient need to question the governor in person, the court would be in a better position to limit the questioning, Yamashita said.
Chevron wants to question Cayetano about, among other things, the state's allegation that the oil companies intentionally concealed documents showing a conspiracy.
By including such an allegation in the lawsuit, the state avoids the four-year statute of limitations that otherwise would apply to the case and can now go back 10 years, resulting in an additional $1 billion in requested damages, according to Chevron attorney Robert Mittelstaedt.
The lawsuit was filed about a month before last year's election at a time when Cayetano trailed in the polls.
The state has said that because of the alleged concealment it didn't discover facts necessary to file the lawsuit prior to late 1998.
But former Deputy Attorney General Ted Clause, who retired this summer as the state's antitrust chief, testified recently that he was told in March 1998 by a superior that Cayetano already had decided to sue the oil companies, even before getting a recommendation from Clause, Mittelstaedt said.
He said the state has come up with at least six versions explaining how the decision was made to file the lawsuit.
Whatever version is true, Mittelstaedt said, it is clear Cayetano personally was involved and his decision evidently was not due to the discovery of allegedly concealed evidence.
"He simply instructed the Attorney General's Office to sue the oil companies, leaving it to the lawyers to find a way," Chevron said in court documents.
L. Richard DeRobertis, an attorney representing the state, called Chevron's allegations false and scandalous.
He said taking Cayetano's oral deposition is premature, given that former Attorney General Margery Bronster will answer Chevron's questions beginning this week and that the governor already has agreed to a written deposition.
Bronster was the state's top attorney when the lawsuit was filed.
"The state wants to avoid this lawsuit evolving into a circus," DeRobertis said.
Cayetano still is expected to provide answers to the written questions on Oct. 27, though the logistics of his deposition must be worked out.
Mittelstaedt said he has to discuss with his client whether to appeal Yamashita's ruling.