By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
If Marjory Stoneman Douglas had a grave, she’d be rolling in it.
The pioneering environmentalist and famed “Mother of the Everglades,” whose ashes were famously scattered across Everglades National Park wilderness upon her death in 1998 at age 108, could hardly have imagined two of the Everglades’ leading nonprofit champions on opposite sides in a Miami court of law.
But that’s what exactly happened this week as wealthy and powerful The Everglades Foundation sought to have its former top scientist, Thomas Van Lent, held in criminal contempt of court after he jumped ship to go to work for the smaller but older Friends of the Everglades – founded by Douglas in 1969.
After two days of Zoom hearings that ended Thursday, it’s now up to Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Carlos Lopez to decide whether Van Lent was in contempt – a finding that could land the renowned hydrologist and Everglades expert in jail and expose him to liability for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages that the foundation says it has racked up going after him for allegedly stealing secrets.
Lopez asked both sides to submit by May 22 their proposed findings for his consideration. Still, he seemed distinctly inclined toward citing Van Lent for contempt in several remarks he made to Van Lent’s lawyer, Michael Rayboun, after testimony was complete.
For example, “Let me ask you this, Mr. Rayboun. You don’t…Do you not believe that the testimony has been clear, that Dr. Van Lent violated the injunction?” Lopez said. Rayboun, of course, rejected the idea.
STOLEN TRADE SECRETS?
But clear or not, after 14 hours of often tense and tedious testimony, something else is now undeniable: there is no love lost between The Everglades Foundation and Friends of the Everglades.
Van Lent has contended in court papers that he was effectively forced to quit in February 2022 after voicing “opinions contrary to the prevailing political regime led by Florida’s governor and reigning party, to which the Foundation has become beholden.” On the way out the door, Van Lent took a very public parting shot at his longtime former employer, tweeting: “Will soon work with the @FOEverglades, who put facts over politics.”
The foundation, however, sued Van Lent in early April 2022, contending he walked off with valuable “trade secrets” even as he mounted a parallel “secret campaign of theft and destruction of sensitive Foundation materials” while preparing to leave.
The foundation initially sought to keep its complaint secret. But after Florida Bulldog and The Capitolist, a for-profit Republican-oriented digital news site based in Tallahassee, asked the court to unseal it, it was made public in mid-July.
On Aug. 31, the two sides settled after Van Lent agreed to turn over his computers and records for inspection and accept a permanent injunction prohibiting him from disclosing any of the foundation’s “confidential information” to anyone.
But the deal quickly unraveled. And last Sept. 27, the foundation asked the court to hold Van Lent in contempt for “willfully” violating the settlement agreement by failing to hand over to the foundation computers, data storage devices, his email and cloud storage credentials, and by deleting 760,000 files and folders the foundation says it owned.
VAN LENT VS. EIKENBERG
On Wednesday, the court heard from a pair of the foundation’s witnesses: California-based computer forensic expert Pete Smith and Coreen Rodgers, the foundation’s chief financial and operations officer. Smith laid out the findings of his analysis of various computers and devices used by Van Lent to show how huge cache of data had been deleted and/or transferred. Rodgers discussed the foundation’s contention that the information Van Lent took or destroyed “was owned by our foundation” and that as a result it has replaced its Apple-based computer system with Windows.
Rodgers appeared to trace the start of Van Lent’s split with the foundation to a “very upsetting incident” in 2015 or 2016. Van Lent was in the office of foundation chief executive officer Eric Eikenberg, strongly objecting to the foundation’s public position regarding the size of the controversial Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) storage reservoir. Rodgers did not witness the dust-up, but was told that Van Lent “was screaming to the point where many of our people remember this day because it was so upsetting. I know that Eric felt like he could be assaulted at any time.”
Rodgers also sought to suggest that Van Lent gave at least some of the foundation’s sensitive information – notably an internal directory with the names and email addresses of ts high-powered board of directors – to Friends of the Everglades. She testified that shortly after the foundation sued Van Lent FOE’s executive director, Eve Samples, sent a letter about Van Lent to many board members. Rodgers also noted for the court that “many of their staff and their leaders are on this call today watching this trial.”
Attorney Rayboun later got Rodgers to acknowledge she had no independent knowledge that Van Lent provided Samples with the directory, and noted that Samples, a former news reporter, has said she obtained the various contacts for board members from her own sources, not from Van Lent.
But it was Van Lent who was the star witness at his own contempt trial.
Over more than eight hours of testimony, Van Lent denied any wrongdoing. He said he provided the foundation with all its information in his possession, though he acknowledged he may not have succeeded in actually accomplishing the data return due to technical reasons. He said any documents he deleted were his personal files, like tax returns and family photos, that were co-mingled with his work files. Van Lent also testified he deleted numerous “redundant” files to get rid of digital clutter.
THE QUESTION OF CONTEMPT
“Dr. Van Lent did everything in his power and he’s testified multiple times that he believed and had reason to believe and still believes that everything belonging to the Everglades Foundation that he’s ever had in his possession is available on that [Apple] Time Machine backup that he provided on March 11th of 2022. Everything. And so again, he’s allowed to be wrong,” said Rayboun.
Van Lent, however, appeared flummoxed when foundation attorney Jorge Piedra questioned him about his failure for months last year to turn over a certain hard drive for inspection by the foundation’s forensic expert. At the time, Judge Lopez had issued an initial temporary injunction requiring that, and what happened could be key to the judge’s thinking on the question of contempt going forward.
After the injunction issued, Van Lent appealed, taking issue with the foundation’s complaint. But he never obtained an order staying, or halting, the injunction.
“The complaint was based upon a faulty premise, and therefore I contacted legal advice on how I should deal with this, uh, this injunction,” Van Lent told Piedra.
“So, you made the decision not to follow the instructions of this temporary injunction, correct?”
“That was my decision, yes,” said Van Lent.
“And you made that decision because you thought Judge Lopez was wrong, correct?”
“No, that is not correct. I did not believe Judge Lopez was wrong. However, I thought that the information presented to Judge Lopez was incorrect and faulty and therefore the premise of the injunction was faulty and I wanted the opportunity to get it reviewed…before I comply,” Van Lent said.
“So, from April all the way through August. You ignored…this order and disobeyed, which required you to return the [hard] drive, or send it to Pete Smith, correct?”
“Um. Yes. And the reason is that I thought that because the issue was under appeal that I deserved to have the order reviewed before I comply,” Van Lent said.
So, you took the law into your own hands, right? You said I’m gonna ignore it. You said I’m gonna ignore the order. And, you know, hopefully this gets fixed on appeal. That’s what you did.”
“No, I don’t believe I did that,” Van Lent replied. “I believed I was acting in a manner that would protect me and my rights, my rights to privacy and my rights to have to due process.”