By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
A Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge has found the Everglades Foundation’s former chief scientist Thomas Van Lent guilty of indirect criminal contempt for disobeying a court order and deleting from his computers “massive amounts of data” owned by the foundation.
“The court finds that the Foundation proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Dr. Van Lent intended to violate the Temporary Injunction and intended to obstruct the administration of justice when he deleted data from his devices and accounts and when he refused to timely deliver the…hard drive” to the foundation as ordered, Lopez wrote in his 23-page ruling.
Van Lent, one of the world’s foremost scientific authorities on the Everglades, now faces up to a year in the county jail. A sentencing hearing date has yet to be set by Judge Carlos Lopez.
He’s also potentially on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and other costs the Everglades Foundation has incurred as a result of Van Lent’s conduct. A hearing to determine those costs is set for June 7.
Van Lent, a hydrologist, resigned from the foundation in February 2022. Before he left, however, he testified that he downloaded foundation files “with the intent of maintaining an archival records of his work for the foundation so that [he] could be recognized for it and use it in the future,” Judge Lopez wrote.
A TWEET HURTS
The same day, Van Lent tweeted he’d soon be working with Friends of the Everglades, “who put facts over politics.” Friends of the Everglades, a much smaller organization, was founded by the famed “Mother of the Everglades” Marjory Stoneman Douglas in 1969. He is today the group’s “senior scientist.”
The tweet hurt Van Lent’s case. Wrote Judge Lopez, “The court finds that this Tweet was directed at the Foundation and arises out of the disagreements between Dr. Van Lent and the Foundation’s CEO [Eric Eikenberg] over the positions taken by the Foundation. Dr. Van Lent clearly intended to take the Foundation’s materials with him for use in the future and he intentionally deprived the Foundation of the same materials so they could not be used in a manner he disagreed with.”
Van Lent’s Tallahassee lawyer, Michael Rayboun, said, “We were disappointed, but not surprised and had already taken steps toward appealing prior to the judgment. There’s legal precedent in the Third District [Court of Appeal} so that if it follows its own precedent, we expect a reversal.”
Van Lent has 30 days to file his appeal.
Friends’ board of directors is staunchly behind Van Lent and earlier this month issued an open letter that practically begged the foundation to back off:
“We believe this legal action against Dr. Van Lent is bad for the Everglades movement. Attacks against a leading Everglades scientist undermine restoration efforts and only benefit the forces that seek to undermine or delay Everglades restoration — the polluters we have been fighting for decades.”
“In view of Dr. Van Lent’s distinguished career and his long tenure with the Everglades Foundation, it is unfortunate that their relationship has come to this. The Everglades Foundation has ratcheted up its aggression to an elevated, punitive level.
“There is also concern that this action could impact ongoing and timely Everglades science and advocacy. Dr. Van Lent has raised scientific questions about the effectiveness of the planned $4 billion Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir project, which the Everglades Foundation and other entities now routinely call a “crown jewel.”
“Friends of the Everglades also has expressed concerns about the EAA Reservoir project falling short on water quality — concerns most recently substantiated by the National Academy of Sciences in its December 2022 report.
EVERGLADES FOUNDATION AND DESANTIS
The case has roiled Florida environmentalists, and injected a heavy dose of politics into the matter with Van Lent’s claims that he quit the nonprofit Everglades Foundation because it had “lost its way” and shown “fealty” to Gov. Ron DeSantis and his fellow Republicans.
In two days of hearings earlier this month, Van Lent repeatedly and forcefully denied intentionally stealing or destroying the foundation’s information but did not dispute that he intentionally violated the order – a temporary injunction issued five days after the Everglades Foundation sued him in April 2022 asserting breach of contract and misappropriation of its trade secrets relating to his alleged destruction and theft of the foundation’s digital materials.
In fact, Van Lent admitted to it, arguing his belief that Judge Lopez issued his order based on bad information he’d been told by the foundation’s lawyers. “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 complied.”
He had appealed the temporary injunction to the Third District Court of appeal and sought a stay. But that was denied by both Lopez and the Third District.
On Aug. 31, 2022, one day before a scheduled contempt hearing before Lopez, Van Lent and the foundation reached a settlement with a new permanent injunction.
Within a month, however, the foundation was back in court seeking to enforce the settlement, claiming more violations by Van Lent – specifically, that in the days leading up to the signing of the settlement he’d deleted “massive amounts” of the foundation’s data. The foundation also accused Van Lent of committing indirect criminal contempt – that is, contempt committed outside the judge’s immediate presence.
TESTIMONY SINKS VAN LENT
Judge Lopez soon ordered the scientist to show cause why he shouldn’t be held in contempt. After Van Lent was arraigned last Sept. 30, and pleaded not guilty, Lopez set trial for May 10-11.
The foundation’s case, and the judge’s verdict, were founded upon the testimony of computer forensic expert Pete Smith and Coreen Rodgers, the foundation’s chief financial and operations officer. Smith explained the findings of his analysis of various devices used by Van Lent to show how large amounts of data had been deleted, transferred and/or destroyed. Rodgers testified “it is critical to the Foundation’s work that its scientists are able to develop proprietary models and analyses that support the policy positions advocated by the Foundation,” Lopez wrote.
Rodgers also testified about a “very upsetting incident” in 2015 or 2016 in which Van Lent got into a shouting match with foundation boss Eikenberg over the foundation’s public position regarding the size of the controversial EAA storage reservoir. She said Eikenberg feared for his safety.
Further, the judge wrote, Rodgers testified that Van Lent’s purging of data “has made it impossible for the Foundation to determine whether Dr. Van Lent is still in possession of the Foundation’s materials or whether he shared them with third parties.
“The court agrees. The Temporary Injunction required Dr. Van Lent to preserve all data on his devices and accounts so a full analysis could be performed by Mr. Smith and presented to the Court. Because Dr. Van Lent has purged massive amounts of data from his devices and accounts in violation of the Temporary Injunction, Dr. Van Lent has hindered the administration of justice. The Court concludes that Dr. Van Lent did so with the intent of making it impossible to determine what he did with the Foundation’s materials,” the final judgment of contempt says.