By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
The Everglades Foundation effectively forced its leading scientist to quit after he voiced “opinions contrary to the prevailing political regime led by Florida’s governor and reigning party, to which the Foundation had become beholden,” say newly filed court papers.
The papers were filed Thursday by lawyers representing prominent hydrologist Thomas Van Lent in what they contend was the foundation’s “conjured” Miami-Dade lawsuit against him, alleging he stole its valuable trade secrets.
Van Lent’s answers to the suit include a number of disturbing counter allegations, including that the wealthy and well-connected Everglades Foundation has “ignore(d) its mission and den(ied) inconvenient science and facts regarding Florida’s natural resources, as well as mechanisms to support or save them,” wrote Tallahassee attorney Michael C. Rayboun.
- The Foundation, a nonprofit charity, worries that “Dr. Van Lent would reveal to others that the Foundation has lost its way in how far it has strayed from its stated mission, all in order to show fealty to (Gov. Ron DeSantis) and (his) administration, with actions that run counter to facts and science.”
- “The Foundation, despite its mission statement and enjoying tax exempt status, is seeking to punish and intimidate Dr. Van Lent, who happens to be in a singular and unique position to demonstrate that science has been suborned to a political agenda, which runs directly counter to the Foundation’s posturing as a ‘science-based’ organization and knowing this could affect its financial donors’ opinions and decisions to continue making donations.”
- That Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg is paid a second salary by the Everglades Trust, a political and lobbying nonprofit with shared board members and staff, “which would allow the CEO’s full salary to be hidden on the tax filings required from all” 501(c)(3) organizations like the foundation. Van Lent did not disclose Eikenberg’s salary from the trust, but Eikenberg’s foundation compensation for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020 was $306,883, according to its most recent tax return.
Van Lent, whose compensation in the same period was $173,530, was sued by the foundation in April. The group’s longtime director of science and policy was accused of secretly stealing and destroying numerous “sensitive Foundation materials,” including trade secrets, in the weeks before his resignation, which was effective Feb. 28.
EVERGLADES FOUNDATION TRADE SECRETS?
The foundation’s lawsuit does not further explain those 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.”
The foundation listed assets of $17.6 million on its most recent federal tax return.
In his amended answer filed Thursday, Van Lent forcefully denied any wrongdoing, saying he never had any “confidential materials to destroy or that he destroyed any document claimed to be confidential by the Foundation.” Further, Van Lent said the foundation never instructed him to keep anything secret, “as this would seemingly be in direct contravention of its mission statement and far outside scientific principles.”
He added that any data deletions he made from his computer upon leaving were “innocent and reasonable,” but were wrongly portrayed by the foundation as nefarious.
The court papers also deny “the Foundation has suffered any harm caused by Dr. Van Lent or by his departure, other than how its activities and efforts to bury facts and science may be discovered by others.”
Van Lent’s lawyers further demanded that the Palmetto Bay-based Everglades Foundation produce “strict proof…as to how or why the Foundation is seeking to classify documents as trade secrets, when its stated mission is to educate the public, and knowing that scientists like Dr. Van Lent routinely send out models and papers to the scientific community for peer-review and comment.”
“No trade secrets exist,” the lawyers wrote. They also asked the court to transfer the case to Tallahassee, where Van Lent resides, and award him attorney’s fees.
THE SECRET COMPLAINT
Van Lent’s answer also demands the foundation explain “how or why it claims to ‘inform and educate decision-makers and the public’ while unfairly redacting scientific documents given to the public, and also seeking to seal and make all issues in this action confidential.”
While the foundation’s complaint against Van Lent was filed in early April, it wasn’t until Monday that Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Carlos Lopez made it public when he granted a motion filed two weeks ago by Florida Bulldog and The Capitolist, a for-profit, Republican-oriented digital news site based in Tallahassee, that sought to open it up.
Jacksonville First Amendment lawyer Edward L. Birk successfully argued that Lopez had improperly sealed the complaint and other records at the foundation’s ex parte request. Ex parte refers to a motion that seeks an order without hearing from the other side.
Van Lent’s answer to the complaint says the Everglades Foundation has used “buzzwords to create drama on a cinematic level” and made unreasonable demands to examine his personal computer in “an effort to bury Dr. Van Lent in paperwork, court appearances and to distract him from working outside of the Foundation, and to smear his good name and reputation.”
Van Lent is currently an unpaid volunteer working on the policy and science committee of the much smaller, Stuart-based Friends of the Everglades, according to its executive director Eve Samples.
Van Lent contends the Everglades Foundation “systematically” isolated him from participating in certain “external processes, such as the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, only because he would voice opinions contrary to the prevailing political regime led by Florida’s governor and reigning party, to which the Foundation had become beholden.”
He also contends the Everglades Foundation has “unclean hands.”
“Though Dr. Van Lent has not sought any technical whistleblower protections, the Foundation’s efforts to harass, bully, intimidate and smear Dr. Van Lent are exactly why laws are created to protect whistleblowers who fear reprisals for telling the truth about what a company or employer has done,” the answer says.
In a parting shot, Van Lent also said the Everglades Foundation still owes him unspecified compensation that he’s due.