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Everglades scientist could face jail in bitter fight over records

The stormwater treatment area, pictured above, is part of the massive Everglades restoration work to clean and send freshwater to wetlands damaged by decades of flood control and fend off climate change.
Jenny Staletovich
The stormwater treatment area, pictured above, is part of the massive Everglades restoration work to clean and send freshwater to wetlands damaged by decades of flood control and fend off climate change.

A longtime Everglades scientist could face jail time after a Miami judge sided with the powerful Everglades Foundation and found the scientist guilty of defying a court order to return information to the group after he quit.

Judge Carlos Lopez wrote in his 22-page order that Thomas Van Lent’s explanation that he was clearing up files to ease the transition and protect personal information was not credible.

“Because Dr. Van Lent has purged massive amounts of data and accounts in violation of a Temporary Injunction, Dr. Van Lent has hindered the administration of justice,” Lopez wrote. Van Lent did so, he said, with the intent of “making it impossible to determine what he did with the Foundation’s materials.”

Lopez found Van Lent guilty of indirect criminal contempt, a charge that can lead to a fine or jail time. A sentencing date has not yet been set.

The bitter falling out between the Foundation and its longtime scientist has shocked the usually tight-knit community of Everglades activists. The Foundation not only accused Van Lent of waging a “secret campaign of theft and destruction” but of stealing information to provide to Friends of the Everglades, a rival non-profit founded by Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Van Lent, a well-regarded hydrologist, began working for the Foundation 17 years ago after stints at the South Florida Water Management District and Everglades National Park. Van Lent specializes in modeling water flow as part of Everglades restoration efforts, an expertise the Foundation leveraged when it helped win support for a massive reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.

READ MORE: In fight over research, influential Everglades Foundation sues its former chief scientist

The reservoir was originally proposed as a 60,000-acre project and included a stormwater treatment area. But lawmakers dramatically scaled back the project to just 17,000 acres. That led Van Lent and other scientists to raise objections, fearful that the smaller project would fail to meet strict legal standards for cleaning water polluted with farm and urban runoff.

As the Foundation continued to support the project, Van Lent and Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg got into a screaming match over the work, according to testimony during a two-day hearing earlier this month. Coreen Rodgers, a Foundation finance and operations chief, said Van Lent was eventually demoted. The Foundation now routinely calls it the ‘crown jewel’ of Everglades restoration.

When he resigned last February, Van Lent tweeted that he was going to work for Friends who, he said, put “facts over politics.”

Within a week after, the Foundation retained a California law firm that usually deals in high stakes intellectual property cases. A forensics investigator hired to search Van Lent’s work computer concluded that Van Lent had downloaded thousands of files and deleted others. The Foundation demanded Van Lent turn over his computers and other devices, including his personal devices, where information might be stored.

In April 2022, the Foundation sued. In a rare ex parte complaint usually reserved for emergency matters, they claimed Van Lent had stolen and destroyed proprietary information and asked Lopez to issue an injunction ordering Van Lent to turn over all his devices and stop downloading and deleting material on any device. Within two weeks, the Foundation complained that Van Lent had violated the order and asked Lopez to hold him in contempt.

The feud came to a temporary halt in August when they reached a confidential settlement. But within a month, the deal fell apart and landed back before the judge.

During this month’s hearing, Van Lent insisted he returned the material and provided copies.

“They seemed to be obsessed with this notion that there was a huge secreted cache of data somewhere, and they continually operated on that premise and were constantly pressuring me to prove that that wasn't true,” Van Lent said. “I didn't know how to respond.”

He said he worried about sharing private information and didn’t believe the judge’s order covered personal matters.

But Rodgers testified that the files remained a mess. When asked what might be missing, she said it remains unclear.

“In some cases, [the forensic investigator] has generated lists for us that have names of files, or names of folders that we knew were, that we now know were deleted, so we know they existed. But we don't have those contents,” she said.

Foundation attorney Jorge Piedra also suggested Van Lent stole a confidential board directory containing contact information and shared it with Friends executive director Eve Samples.

The judge refused to let Samples testify, but in a statement after the ruling Friends said Van Lent never shared any Foundation information. The group also said Van Lent began working for the group as a volunteer, not a paid staffer, and signed a legal agreement vowing not to share any propriety information.

Friends President Phil Kushlan and Vice President Peter Upton called Van Lent “one of the world's most knowledgeable Everglades scientists,” in a statement, saying the year-long legal battle was hurting Everglades restoration efforts.

Lopez concluded none of Van Lent’s were credible.

“The court does not find it credible,” he wrote, “that Dr. Van Lent had 760,000 personal files of photographs bank records or tax records.”

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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