Top Everglades restoration scientist Van Lent ordered to jail for indirect criminal contempt

van lent
Van Lent

By Dan Christensen,

One of the nation’s preeminent scientists involved in Everglades restoration was ordered to jail Thursday by a Miami-Dade circuit judge who found him guilty of indirect criminal contempt of court in May.

Thomas Van Lent, 67, was told by Judge Carlos Lopez that he must serve a sentence of 10 days in the Miami-Dade County jail. He could have been jailed for six months or fined $500, the judge said.

In a related action, Van Lent, a Tallahassee resident, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on Dec. 15.

The move followed another Lopez order on Oct. 27 that Van Lent must pay his former employer, The Everglades Foundation, $177,722.30 plus interest to compensate it for its legal fees and costs.

The Everglades Foundation, while publicly proclaiming that it took no position on what Van Lent’s sentence should be, retained a Miami attorney, Jorge Piedra, who assumed the role of a determined prosecutor who rebuked the scientist time and again during his testimony.

Eve Samples

“This decision is a miscarriage of justice. The Everglades Foundation has embraced overly aggressive, scorched-earth litigation tactics against Dr. Tom Van Lent, its former top scientist and an Everglades icon,’’ said Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades. “Friends of the Everglades is proud to stand with Dr. Van Lent as he appeals this decision. We hope the Court of Appeal will remedy this travesty.”


Since his departure Van Lent has worked as an unpaid consultant for Friends of the Everglades, the environmental nonprofit founded in 1969 by the late Marjory Stoneman Douglas, famed “Mother of the Everglades.”

The scientist’s Tallahassee attorney, Michael Rayboun, did not respond to a Florida Bulldog phone message seeking comment.

Van Lent, a hydrologist, was a longtime Everglades Foundation employee who quit in a very public parting in February 2022. As he left, he tweeted, ““Will soon work with the @FOEverglades [Friends of the Everglades] who put facts over politics.”

van lent
Thomas Van Lent

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 in his May 25 order finding him guilty of indirect contempt.

Testimony showed that Van Lent also erased tens of thousands of data on his laptop computer.

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.”


The powerhouse Everglades Foundation, which reported $28.3 million in revenue and $33.9 million in net assets in 2022, sued Van Lent in early April 2022, alleging 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.

What those trade secrets are, and why a nonprofit working to save the Everglades would even claim to have trade secrets, is unclear as the underlying case continues to play out.

Meanwhile, the case has vexed Florida environmentalists amid Van Lent’s further 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.

Gov. DeSantis and The Everglades Foundation executive director Eric Eikenberg

Said Samples, whose Friends of the Everglades reported $1 million in revenues and $902,000 in assets last year, “Dr. Van Lent left the Foundation after his disagreement about the shortcomings of the $4 billion Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir, which the Foundation supported — despite opposition from many environmentalists.”

The crux of the contempt case against Van Lent involved Lopez’s finding that he violated a temporary injunction that Lopez issued five days after the foundation filed suit. Specifically, Lopez found that he intentionally hindered the administration of justice.

At a Dec. 15 hearing, Van Lent testified in his own defense and his lawyers called seven character witnesses, including Dr. Stuart Pimm, a highly decorated chair of the conservation ecology program at North Carolina’s Duke University. He called Van Lent an “outstanding scientist” and “man of extraordinary integrity.”

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Latest comments

  • It sure looks like the Everglades Foundation is supporting DeSantis and probably selling out the Everglades.

    While it appears that Van Lent was unwise in some of his actions, I think he is a hero for the right causes.

  • Unwise perhaps; but, having known Tom Van Lent for many years, I can only conclude that when people of his high caliber are thrown in jail for that kind of action that it is at the hands of mean-spirited, vengeful people.

  • Whoa, how can a nonprofit organization “ dedicated to protecting and restoring the greater everglades ecosystem” (2022 990’s) have trade secrets? If indeed it “advances its mission primarily through public education and science-based research” (2022 990’s), why would any of its work in this regard be claimed as a trade secret?

    Something feels wrong here. Further investigative reporting would be appreciated to help your readers better understand why Mr. Van Lent doesn’t agree with the current approach to the Everglades Agricultural Reservoir project.

  • Does Van Lent have an attorney to fight this very questionable action against him? Is any organization like ACLU acting on his behalf?

  • He’s got the wrong type of last name for the ACLU to give a crap about him. They predominantly only represent the chosen ones and he ain’t that. He’s screwed.

  • Mary Barley is more dangerous than all the critters in the Everglades combined. I should know too, shes my greedy, spiteful, vengeful, and petty stepmother. The only thing that makes her happy is to psychologically and financially abuse whomever she decides to target. That and falsifying wills. In fact, as I speak, she bought two california judges, lawyers, and public officials in her never ending quest to steal my home by recording falsified documents. She belongs in prison, not Dr. Van Lent.

  • Mary Barley belongs in prison, not Dr. Van Lent.

  • the problem with this story is the author never states what specidic acts were performed that would
    merit the contempt. I guess were to speculate, bad journalism. not up to bulldogs usual standard. sorry

  • Zigy – read much? The story spells it out very well. Trade secrets, alleged destruction of evidence, corrupt judge, et al. Keep up the great work Florida Bulldog.

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