By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
A Miami-Dade Circuit judge Monday unsealed a 19-page complaint and other records filed by the Everglades Foundation in early April in a politically charged lawsuit against its former top scientist.
Judge Carlos Lopez acted by granting a motion brought two weeks ago by Florida Bulldog and The Capitolist, a for-profit, Republican-oriented digital news site based in Tallahassee, seeking to open up all judicial records in the case.
The 10-page motion, filed on the news organizations’ behalf by Jacksonville First Amendment attorney Edward L. Birk, argued that Lopez had improperly sealed the records previously, including the Everglades Foundation’s 13-page ex parte motion that successfully asked the court to designate them as confidential. Ex parte refers to a motion that seeks an order without hearing from the other side.
The Everglades Foundation sued Thomas Van Lent, its longtime director of science and policy, alleging that in the weeks before he resigned effective February 28, he mounted “a secret campaign of theft and destruction of sensitive Foundation materials in preparation for his departure,” according to the complaint.
The complaint also noted that Van Lent left to work for “another Everglades-focused entity.”
That other nonprofit entity is Stuart-based Friends of the Everglades, founded in 1969 by the famed environmental activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
On his way out the door, Van Lent made what the complaint called this “disparaging” tweet: “Today marks my last day after nearly 17 years at the Everglades Foundation @evergfoundation. Will soon work with the @FoEverglades, who put facts over politics. With a legacy of leadership including MSD, Juanita Greene, Maggy Hurchalla and now @EveSamples, I trust them.”
The Everglades Foundation and its CEO Eric Eikenberg have been important allies of Gov. Ron DeSantis in his push to fund the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, which the governor has called the “crown jewel of Everglades restoration.”
The reservoir project was advanced years ago because of toxic algae discharges from Lake Okeechobee, but Van Lent and others have been critical of it because while it was originally supposed to cover 60,000 acres, its footprint was later shrunk to just 17,000 acres. The concern is whether the reduced area will be sufficient to clean the water to federal water quality standards.
In court papers, an attorney for Van Lent, who lives in Tallahassee, denied any wrongdoing and called the complaint’s allegations “nothing more than Plaintiff seeking to harass and punish Dr. Van Lent for his decision to resign.”
But Van Lent’s court papers also assert that the foundation’s claims that “he failed to clear his laptop of data that belongs to Plaintiff,” if it actually occurred, was because the foundation failed to tell him how to “accomplish these technical tasks prior to his resignation.”
POLITICAL SECRETS IN EVERGLADES FOUNDATION FILES?
Van Lent’s acknowledgement that he may well have walked off with sensitive Everglades Foundation files raises intriguing questions: Why did the foundation, which boasts assets of $17.6 million and a powerhouse board with the likes of golf legend Jack Nicklaus and singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett, go to court to try and lock down its information? And what political secrets might be lurking in its confidential files?
Here’s how the Palmetto Bay-based Everglades Foundation, founded in 1994, describes what Van Lent surreptitiously took and destroyed: “hundreds of files and folders containing the Foundation’s confidential and proprietary information and trade secrets, including hundreds of gigabytes of data.”
The complaint does not further elaborate on those asserted trade secrets, except to say they contain “information that is not generally known or available to the public, and that has economic value to the Foundation, including because it provides support to the Foundation’s work, its efforts to seek research grants, and its efforts to secure funding for its annual budget.
“Van Lent could use these materials to his own economic advantage by selling them to enrich himself or using them to seek research grants and consulting work in his own name,” the complaint says.
Left unstated is the foundation’s apparent concern that Van Lent may be providing its proprietary information to Friends of the Everglades, a much smaller organization with a similar mission, but just $538,000 in reported assets.
“Absolutely not,” said Friends of the Everglades Executive Director Eve Samples.
Van Lent, she said, is not an employee, but rather “works with us as a volunteer on our policy and science committee.”
ACTIVISTS UPSET WITH EF’S LAWSUIT
Samples is among more than a dozen prominent environmental activists who have expressed dismay at the Everglades Foundation’s lawsuit against Van Lent.
On May 4, they sent a letter to the foundation’s officers, board members and trustees asking that the lawsuit be dropped. They called Van Lent “a valuable asset for the Foundation and a trusted ambassador to the Everglades restoration community and beyond; over many years, he earned our admiration and respect.”
“Whatever the particulars in the dispute, the Foundation’s action here does not serve the Everglades restoration community’s collective purpose. Antagonists are already using this controversy to cast doubt and aspersions on our work. We are alarmed that the litigation is providing our adversaries with an especially damaging narrative,” the letter says. “Furthermore, this litigation appears contrary to the mission of the Foundation to ‘protect and restore America’s Everglades through science, advocacy and education.’”
No formal response from the Everglades Foundation was received.
In an interview Monday, Samples added, “We haven’t seen anything that gives credence to this aggressive lawsuit. I have to think that this is all about politics and self-preservation.”