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Judge orders jail time for a prominent Everglades scientist

Airboat is seen hovering over Everglades wetlands
Chandan Khanna
AFP via Getty Images
An airboat is seen hovering over wetland in Everglades National Park

Tom Van Lent is accused of stealing “trade secrets” from his former employer, the well-connected Everglades Foundation.

A renowned Everglades scientist whose work has helped steer one of the most ambitious attempts at ecological restoration in human history has been sentenced by a state judge to spend 10 days in jail in a bitter legal dispute with his former employer.

The sentence represents a stunning turn of fortune for Tom Van Lent, a leading scientist in the $21 billion federal and state effort to rescue the treasured and troubled watershed responsible for the drinking water of some 12 million Floridians. Van Lent is accused of stealing “trade secrets” and destroying files when he left the Everglades Foundation in February 2022. He denies the allegations.

“Indeed, the Court finds that Defendant’s testimony during the sentencing hearing was not credible,” Judge Carlos Lopez wrote in hissentencing order, filed Dec. 28. “The Court further notes that Defendant did not show remorse or apologize for his contemptuous conduct.”

Van Lent’s entanglement with the foundation has coincided with a controversial plan for a reservoir described by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a GOP presidential candidate, as “the crown jewel of Everglades restoration.” The 16-square-mile reservoir, to be situated south of Lake Okeechobee in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), would be the largest of its kind that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ever has built nationwide. The reservoir is aimed at reviving the river of grass’s historic flow south from the state’s largest lake. Construction began in February 2023.

Van Lent, who spent 17 years at the foundation, once served as chief scientist, although he was not in that position when he left the organization. He has joined with other advocacy groups in raising concerns about the reservoir’s design, putting him at odds with the foundation, which supports the reservoir. The organization has said the only motivation behind the litigation is to recover materials it contends Van Lent downloaded and destroyed.

“This has nothing to do with the EAA reservoir, and the fact that that project continues to be brought into this topic, it’s really irrelevant,” Eric Eikenberg, chief executive officer of the foundation, told Inside Climate News. “The EAA reservoir is not part of this case.”

Van Lent denied stealing or destroying files during a Dec. 15 sentencing hearing and testified the only documents he deleted held personal information like income tax return records. He said he did not know the private materials were part of the dispute with the foundation.

“I thought I complied with all their requests,” he said. “I was doing my utmost to try to reconcile the issues, and I had no intention of flouting the directive of the court or dismissing the court’s authority, and if I did so I sincerely apologize.”

The foundation accused Van Lent of a “secret campaign of theft and destruction of sensitive Foundation materials in preparation for his departure,” according to acivil complaint filed in April 2022 in Miami-Dade County. “He copied hundreds of files and folders containing the Foundation’s confidential and proprietary information and trade secrets, including hundreds of gigabytes of data, onto his personal hard drives to take with him, without the Foundation’s permission and in violation of his employment obligations to the Foundation.

“He also then destroyed hundreds of gigabytes of the Foundation’s data, including thousands of files and folders containing the Foundation’s copies of proprietary scientific models and related data and copies of the work product the Foundation had employed him to create over his 17 years of employment,” the complaint states. “His scheme was designed to take and deprive the Foundation of its proprietary information and property.”

The foundation says the “trade secrets” consist of memos and reports, white papers and confidential presentations related to the spectrum of issues Van Lent worked on while at the organization. The foundation suggests Van Lent compromised the materials potentially to enrich himself or for the benefit of Friends of the Everglades, a nonprofit environmental organization where he now is a paid contractor.

Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades, said Van Lent never shared confidential information with her organization. She testified both parties had signed an agreement providing that there would be no exchange of such information.

“He’s honorable, and he has devoted his life’s work to making sure we get Everglades restoration right for the next generation,” she said.

“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,” the organization said in a statement after the judge’s sentencing order. “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.”

Maps show the Everglades restoration

Steve Davis, chief science officer at the Everglades Foundation, said among the most notable losses of information were modeling results foundation scientists use to understand how adding water storage or increasing pump capacity might affect a restoration project.

“There are elements of that sort of archive of science that we’ll never get back, and there may come a time where we’ll need some of that information that was lacking,” Davis said. “Just looking ahead to some of the water quality milestones that we have to meet over the next few years, much of that work is gone.”

Eikenberg, the foundation’s CEO, said Van Lent went as far as to take the scientific research of colleagues at the organization and that it has taken a team of scientists to rebuild the lost intellectual property. He said the foundation gave Van Lent multiple opportunities to return the materials before pursuing the issue in court.

Everglades restoration involves a series of landscape-scale projects, each massive on its own, including the reservoir. DeSantis has established the Everglades as a priority of his administration, putting millions of dollars toward the effort. The watershed begins in central Florida with the headwaters of the Kissimmee River and includes Lake Okeechobee, sawgrass marshes to the south and Florida Bay, at the peninsula’s southernmost tip.

Judge Lopez had granted the foundation a rare ex parte injunction, usually reserved for extreme emergency situations. The injunction barred Van Lent from disclosing confidential information and ordered him to return the files. Eventually the parties agreed to a settlement and permanent injunction, but a few weeks later the foundation accused Van Lent of violating the injunction. In May 2023 the judge found Van Lent guilty of indirect criminal contempt. He had faced penalties ranging from a $500 fine to a six-month incarceration.

Van Lent’s attorneys appealed the conviction and on Tuesday filed an emergency habeas corpus petition, asking that his incarceration be delayed until the appeal is decided. Van Lent also faces a $177,000 judgment related to his conviction, for the foundation’s attorney fees. He and his wife have filed for bankruptcy.

“His wife is devastated,” said Amy Kirkpatrick, one of Van Lent’s attorneys. “It’s terrible.”

The litigation has shocked the otherwise tight-knit Everglades advocacy community.

“In the past, the Everglades restoration community was a tight group of organizations, scientists and grassroots activists working closely together and sharing resources to support their common cause,” Cris Costello, senior organizing manager at the Sierra Club in Florida, told Inside Climate News after the judge’s sentencing order. “The idea of any of us having ‘science secrets’ is anathema to everything for which the Everglades Coalition stands.”

During the sentencing hearing, held via Zoom, the judge heard from seven character witnesses who testified on Van Lent’s behalf. Many of the witnesses represented the spectrum of government, academic and advocacy agencies and organizations involved in the unprecedented restoration effort. The experts characterized Van Lent as one of the top scientists in his field and highly principled, with a strong commitment to science even under heavy pressure.

“No one understands the Everglades’ hydrology better than he does,” said Stuart Pimm, a specialist in endangered species at Duke University whose research has included the habitat of the Everglades’ Cape Sable seaside sparrow. “This is an extraordinarily principled individual who does fantastically good science.”

“Tom is really in a select group,” said Alan Farago, conservation chair for Friends of the Everglades, “and probably the best resource that any of us have had for decades on the hydrology and biology of the Everglades.”

Van Lent’s wife also testified. Lois Van Lent said the two married in 1980 after meeting at a church retreat and that they now have two grown sons and a 2-year-old grandson. She said Van Lent was one of the foundation’s first three employees. He was so committed, she said, that after running a half-marathon in Miami Beach and actually going into cardiac arrest he missed a doctor’s appointment some time later so that he could attend a work-related meeting.

“Tom would never, ever, ever do any kinds of behaviors that have been described,” she testified, her voice cracking. “Not intentionally. Not knowingly.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.