By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Thomas Van Lent, the Everglades Foundation’s former top scientist found guilty of criminal contempt in May, heard a parade of character witnesses sing his praises at his sentencing hearing Friday – even as the foundation’s lawyer seemed bent on getting him thrown in jail.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Carlos Lopez will decide on Van Lent’s sentence after pondering the testimony and arguments presented at Friday’s three-hour Zoom hearing. Under Florida statute 775.02, regarding punishments for common-law offenses, Van Lent faces a fine of up to $500 or as much as a year behind bars.
At the hearing’s outset, Everglades Foundation attorney Jorge Piedra began by declaring, “Your honor, I want to make it very clear that the Everglades Foundation is not taking a position with respect to what the sentencing should be.”
Piedra then went on to hammer Van Lent at almost every turn, recounting Lopez’s detailed findings in a 23-page ruling that the scientist had disobeyed a court order and obstructed justice by deleting or encrypting from his computer and phones hundreds of thousands of pages owned by the foundation. Then he conducted a bruising cross-examination of Van Lent as he and his defense lawyer sought to put the best face on what he did.
Tallahassee attorney Amy Kirkpatrick sought to portray Van Lent, a hydrologist considered to be one of the world’s foremost scientific authorities on the Everglades, as a good and noble family man who had no intention of disrupting the judicial process by his actions.
VAN LENT FACING BANKRUPTCY
“Dr. Van Lent is a 67-year-old husband, father, grandfather, friend to many who has been a major contributor to our society. In deleting [a computer] application, he did not mean to delete foundation documents. You heard him testify to that. He did not mean to embarrass, hinder, or obstruct the court in its administration, and you heard him apologize sincerely if did that,” Kirkpatrick said.
Kirkpatrick, suggesting that Van Lent has already suffered punishment enough, informed Judge Lopez her client has been socked with a judgment for the Everglades Foundation’s attorney’s fees in the case: in excess of $170,000. As a result, Van Lent is being driven to file for bankruptcy protection, she said.
Van Lent’s wife of 43 years, Lois, further testified that things are so bad in their Tallahassee household that she’ll be going back to work soon.
Four of Van Lent’s supporters, including a retired Episcopal priest, the executive director of the late Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s Friends of the Everglades and several scientists, testified.
Dr. Stuart Pimm, the renowned Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology at North Carolina’s Duke University, called Van Lent not only an “outstanding scientist,” but “a man of extraordinary integrity.”
“In or about 2000 when there was a plan for the Everglades, it was called the Central Everglades Restoration Program, CERP, when Tom was part of a very forthright discussion of a plan that was at that stage going to cost the U.S. taxpayer a $12 billion,” Pimm said. “And Tom played a leadership role in pointing out that it was going to not do what it was purported to do and that they needed to be some significant oversight on that. That was a very courageous thing to do academically. It was a courageous thing to do, even more courageous thing to do, politically. And it represented to me the extraordinary commitment to, you know, getting the story right, doing the science properly that has characterized everything I’ve seen Tom do.”
PIEDRA’S EARLY XMAS PRESENT
Van Lent was the last to testify. And he and Jorge Piedra, the managing partner at the Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton law firm in Coral Gables, wrangled vigorously over the timing and meaning of what he did with his computer. Then came Piedra’s questions about Van Lent’s appearance on the Dec. 6 episode of the WLRN/NPR podcast about ongoing the Everglades restoration, Bright Lit Place.
The hour-long podcast titled “Science on Trial” focused on “the saga of one scientist who resigned rather than put politics over science, and got dragged into court.” In it, Van Lent called the injunction that Judge Lopez cited him for violating “outrageous.”
“This seems un-American and I just…I had difficulty grappling with it,” he told Piedra. “It was grossly unfair to me.”
Van Lent’s very public remarks critical of the competency and fairness of the judge who found him in contempt, and is now poised to sentence him, could hardly have come at a worse time.
It was an early Christmas gift for prosecuting attorney Piedra.