New SEC Enforcement Leader Alex Oh Resigns Over Past Defense of ExxonMobil in Case Alleging Torture

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Apr 29, 2021

Alex Oh, appointed as the new head of the Securities and Exchange Commission's Division of Enforcement just days ago, has resigned her post over her work as a corporate lawyer defending ExxonMobil in a class action brought by Indonesian villagers seeking to hold the company liable for torture and murder by the Indonesian military during a period of civil unrest between 1999 and 2001, according to Politico.

The suit focused on the company's activities in Aceh, located in northern Sumatra, which at the time had been wrestling with an ongoing nationalist insurgency seeking to gain independence from Indonesia, which gained new intensity after the resignation of long-time dictator Suharto, under whose command half a million people are believed to have been killed.

ExxonMobil, which had significant natural gas operations in the province, hired members of the Indonesian military as private security. The lawsuit, launched in 2001, alleged that these soldiers engaged in the murder, torture, kidnapping and rape of innocent people. What's more, the plaintiffs, 11 Indonesian villagers, say this was done with the company's sanction, as it provided the barracks where the soldiers tortured detainees, and lent them heavy equipment to dig mass graves. The plaintiffs' attorneys said that this was only a sampling of the horrors they suffered at the hands of the Indonesian military with ExxonMobil's blessing, but had to choose a limited number of standout cases to make their argument.

Oh was on the team defending ExxonMobil against these claims.

While the suit, which sought to hold ExxonMobil liable for the human rights abuses considering their choice of private security, was at first dismissed on the grounds that the plaintiffs were not from the United States, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2011 restored their standing to sue based on a 1789 U.S. law known as the Alien Tort Statute for “heinous conduct” allegedly committed by its agents in violation of human rights norms. The company continued to fight the suit until, in 2019, it achieved victory when the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed all tort claims under the statute. ExxonMobil would not be held liable.

This was not the total end of the court battle, however, as more typical tort claims were allowed to stand. Further, the court sanctioned the company just this past Monday for the conduct of ExxonMobil's legal team over the course of the trial—they had characterized the plaintiffs' team as "agitated, disrespectful and unhinged."

Oh's own behavior during a deposition was specifically singled out by the court.

Reuters noted that there were also concerns about potential conflicts of interests, as ExxonMobil is currently under investigation by the SEC over how it values its petroleum assets.

Because of controversy arising over this case, Oh decided her own presence would cause too many distractions and resigned her post. In her place, for now, will be Melissa Hodgman, who had been serving as acting director prior to Oh's appointment.

"Melissa is an exceptional attorney who has proven to be an effective leader of the Enforcement Division. I’m grateful that she will take on this role again and look forward to working closely with her to fulfill the mission of the SEC," said SEC Chair Gary Gensler. "I thank Alex for her willingness to serve the country at this important time."

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