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Powerful Everglades Foundation settles lawsuit against its former chief scientist

 Much of Everglades restoration focuses on repairing the damage done by flood control. Hydrologist Tom Van Lent, a former chief scientist with the Everglades Foundation, is an expert in modeling how water flows around the watershed.
Mark Ian Cook
/
South Florida Water Management District
Much of Everglades restoration focuses on repairing the damage done by flood control. Hydrologist Tom Van Lent, a former chief scientist with the Everglades Foundation, is an expert in modeling how water flows around the watershed.

Under the confidential settlement, hydrologist Tom Van Lent agreed not to surrender electronic devices and not discuss matters the Everglades Foundation considers confidential, including research and strategies.

The Everglades Foundation and its former longterm chief scientist reached a confidential settlement Thursday over a contentious lawsuit that divided the state’s normally tight-knit environmental community.

As part of the deal, scientist Tom Van Lent agreed to never use or disclose any matters about the powerful foundation, including research and strategies, that aren’t already publicly known.

The Foundation sued Van Lent, a scientist regarded as one of the chief authorities on Everglades hydrology, earlier this year when he resigned after 17 years.

The Foundation accused Van Lent of stealing confidential research for his own financial gain after he tweeted that he was going to work for Friends of the Everglades. The much smaller nonprofit that focuses on Everglades Restoration and was founded by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, which Van Lent tweeted, “put facts over fiction.”

Friends has also been critical of a major Everglades Restoration project, a sprawling reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee expected to cost at least $2 billion and championed by the Foundation.

Van Lent did not respond to a request for an interview and his attorney, Mike Rayboun, was unavailable Thursday. The two nonprofits say they hope they can move on from a fight that exposed the politically connected Foundation to criticism that it was trying to stifle dissent.

 Van Lent is now working with Friends of the Everglades, which has raised questions about a $2 billion Everglades reservoir that was approved by the legislature in 2017 after the project was scaled back to about a third of its original size.
Van Lent is now working with Friends of the Everglades, which has raised questions about a $2 billion Everglades reservoir that was approved by the legislature in 2017 after the project was scaled back to about a third of its original size.

“We want to move forward,” said Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg . “There's a lot at stake and there's a lot of Everglades issues that need to be resolved as a community and as a state. And the F oundation looks forward to working with folks to make that happen.”

But the impact of taking a noted scientist to court and filing the matter under seal will likely linger.

“Pursuing the Everglades ' foremost scientist, and I don't think that's hyperbole, in this aggressive manner in court, really can have a chilling effect on science as a whole and science in the Everglades,” said Friends’ executive director. “I hope that we can all get back to the good work of protecting the Greater Everglades ecosystem, but yeah, this was chilling and it was distracting.”

In settling the case, Van Lent agreed to hand over all his personal electronic devices that the Foundation claimed held confidential information. The forensic examiner will then destroy any material the Foundation says is confidential.

Much of the case had centered around the devices, which the Foundation claimed Van Lent refused to surrender after copying and deleting information. Rayboun, however, insisted Van Lent had returned the information by transferring it to hard drives which he gave to the Foundation and that the lawsuit was simply an attempt to smear him.

“So, while stating that Dr. V an Lent ‘copied hundreds of files’ is stated pejoratively to imply wrongdoing, all Dr. Van Lent did was copy Foundation documents from his machine to a disk and then upload those exact documents to the Foundation’s server, followed by him properly deleting the files from his computer and disk so — now , painfully ironically — he would not be accused of wrongfully keeping data belonging to the Foundation upon his departure,” Rayboun wrote.

Rayboun also disputed that the Foundation tried to avoid filing its lawsuit and denied him rights of due process by filling it under a seal, an aggressive tactic often used in cases where a defendant is a flight risk.

“It clearly set forth a campaign to bully, harass, scare, smear and silence Dr. Van Lent to prevent him from revealing how far the Foundation has and continues to proceed away from its stated mission,” Rayboun wrote.

Restoration, Eikenberg said, has never been at a more critical point, with more federal and state money pouring into projects than ever before.

“We look forward to collaborating with all parties and all individuals that want to see restoration happen here in our lifetime,” he said.

And does that include Van Lent, a scientist who’s still considered one of the chief experts on a $23 billion project th at's also considered the largest hydrological research project in the nation’s history?

“If he remains engaged, no doubt,” Eikenberg said. “No doubt about it.”

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Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.