Last week, the Los Angeles Times filed two articles dealing with the court case at the center of the controversy over Frederik Gertten's BANANAS!*, which screened in June at the Los Angeles Film Festival (for our coverage then, see here, here, here and here).
While the first Times article (written by Alan Zarembo and Victoria Kim) only mentions the film (and Dole's subsequent lawsuit against the filmmakers) in passing, it does explore the fascinating and complex history of the story told in the film - that of LA personal injury lawyer Juan Dominguez who may or may not have committed fraud in finding witnesses who were allegedly poisoned by chemicals used by Dole Food Co. in Nicaragua. It also seems to be the first on-the-record response from Dominquez about the case and the charges that have been leveled against him. At the LAFF screenings, the filmmakers said that one of the reasons they could not revisit or re-edit the film was because Dominguezhad gone underground and was refusing to talk to the media (Dominguez' brother proclaimed the attorney's innocence in a highly charged panel discussion at LAFF):
The accusations against him came in a highly unusual proceeding in which Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney relied on secret testimony collected by Dole. Dominguez and other plaintiffs' attorneys had set out to find legitimate claims but turned to fraud when they found few, she wrote. What resulted was a "heinous" scheme "cemented together by human greed and avarice," she said in making her ruling.
Dole, which ran the banana plantations at the time, has used the ruling to cast doubt on dozens of other DBCP claims in U.S. courts, including efforts to enforce tens of millions of dollars in judgments from courts in Nicaragua. "An international legal shakedown," Theodore Boutrous, an attorney for Dole, calls the claims.
Dominguez, 52, now faces investigations by the State Bar of California and scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Justice.
He said he has done nothing wrong: "I don't engage in anything illegal or unethical."
"The whole thing is a crazy nightmare," he said."
The article goes on to recount the history of cases against Dole, both in Nicaragua and in the US. And it details the lengths Dominguez went to to find his clients:
Drawing interest with free raffles of bicycles and TVs, he filled the local stadium with potential clients and railed against the multinationals like a preacher against the devil.
Many Saturdays he went on national radio to talk about DBCP, often calling in from Los Angeles. He liked to be introduced as a "super lawyer," a designation bestowed upon him by a U.S. legal magazine.
He made the same pledge to the Nicaraguan clients that he made representing poor Spanish-speaking accident victims in Los Angeles: "If we don't win, you don't pay."...
Dominguez, who was born in Cuba and came to the United States at 10, said he believed his Latin roots and fluent Spanish gave him an advantage over the other U.S. law firms. He immersed himself in Chinandega, buying a hotel and sponsoring amateur baseball teams...
Dominguez's operation signed up about 12,000 people in Nicaragua, of whom 4,500 have cases in courts there. Several dozen cases were chosen to be filed in U.S. courts."
In the article, Dominguez says that his partner in the cases - Sacramento litigator Duane Miller - had the final say over which client's cases would ultimately go to trial and that Miller oversaw the medical tests that showed whether or not the men were sterile. The judge in the case has not alleged any wrong-doing by Miller or his firm.
Finally, the article notes the unusual circumstances under which Judge Chaney reviewed the evidence presented by Dole that led to her charges against Dominguez. The filmmakers and their supporters have argued that the secretive nature of these proceedings is evidence of judge misconduct or at least casts strong suspicion on Chaney's rulings on Dominguez:
The evidence remains mysterious. The witnesses' names have been kept secret -- even from Dominguez in most cases.
Dole persuaded Chaney, a veteran judge who has handled several high-stakes cases, that witnesses would be in danger if their names were known in Nicaragua. Miller's firm could be present for the depositions but was not allowed to investigate the witnesses.
Among her most startling findings was that U.S. lawyers, including Dominguez, met in Chinandega with local justice officials, laboratory owners and captains in October 2003 and made arrangements to rig cases in the Nicaraguan courts.
The Nicaraguan judge, Socorro Toruno, who was allegedly there, called the accusation "absurd."
Two other U.S. attorneys named by the judge, neither of whom was working with Dominguez, deny being present at such a meeting.
Dominguez said he wasn't in Nicaragua at the time.
"It's easy to make me the boogeyman," he said."
A second Times article from Friday notes that a new attorney had picked up the case of the farmworkers.