An alligator swims at the Everglades National Park, Fla., April 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz, file)
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An Everglades scientist considered among the best working on restoration efforts in the ailing wetlands is trying to avoid jail in an unusuallegal battle.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Carlos Lopez has asked attorneys to submit proposed sentencing recommendations for Tom Van Lent last Friday.

During a three-hour hearing last week, Van Lent’s family, friends and colleagues urged the judge to consider his decades of work on Everglades restoration when he considers whether or not to impose the maximum penalty of up to a year behind bars.

“People go to Tom to learn about the Everglades,” said Robert Johnson, the former chief of the National Park Service’s South Florida science center. “That’s been the case for the 40 years I’ve known him.”

Van Lent, 67, was sued by his former bosses at the Everglades Foundation last year after he quit amid objections to a controversial reservoir project. In his final days of work, the Foundation accused him of stealing trade secrets, waging a “campaign of theft and destruction.” They also said he provided the Foundation’s confidential board directory to his new employer, Friends of the Everglades, a rival non-profit founded by Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Friends denies the charge.

At the Foundation’s request, Judge Lopez ordered Van Lent to stop deleting or downloading any information on any device.

In May, the judge found Van Lent violated the order and found him in criminal contempt of court. He also ordered Van Lent to pay Foundation attorney bills totaling nearly $178,000.

Van Lent has testified that he misunderstood the order and thought it only applied to Foundation material. He said he returned any files containing Foundation work and only deleted copies of the work or personal information.

That would still violate the order and proved Van Lent knowingly defied it, argued Foundation attorney Jorge Piedra.

“You’ve stated to the court that there was a possible interpretation of the court order that would have prohibited you from deleting even your personal information from those devices,” he said. “Even though that was a possible interpretation, you deleted it anyway.”

During last week’s hearing to consider sentencing, Van Lent’s wife, Lois, told Lopez that the legal battle has crippled the couple financially. They filed for bankruptcy earlier this month, according to court filings, and have launched a GoFundMe page to help with their legal expenses.

“I’m 66 years old in a couple of weeks and I’m looking at going back to work,” she said. “Not a lot of people want to hire a 66-year-old.”

The bitter fight stems from Van Lent’s criticism over the reservoir championed by the Foundation. The project was pitched as a solution to pollution from Lake Okeechobee fouling the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries by holding and cleaning the nutrient-rich water before sending it to southern marshes.

WLRN News’ podcast Bright Lit Place examined the fight in Episode 4. Piedra singled out an interview Van Lent gave after his conviction as evident that Van Lent knowingly violated the order. Van Lent agreed had declined to talk about the case in earlier interviews in February because the matter was pending.

In the episode, Van Lent called the Foundation’s claims — both about deleting files and what the injunction covered — to be “outrageous.”

“What they claim is I deleted 700,000 files. And of those, 4000 were files that I had deleted, I deleted them by accident. But I had already turned them over. They had them,” he said in an interview with WLRN after Lopez found him guilty of contempt. “But they just claimed that the act of deleting files that they’ve already had, or that were my personal files, was a violation of a court order, which was explicit: You can touch nothing. And I find that to be just astonishing.”

After lawmakers scaled back the project from 60,000 acres to 17,000 acres, Van Lent and other scientists worried smaller treatment marshes would not be able to adequately clean water. The U.S. Army Corps and Department of Interiorraised concerns. Last year, the National Academies of Sciencesalso warnedFlorida was in danger of not meeting water quality standards.

In its final project contract with the South Florida Water Management District, Corps officials said the reservoir would only hold the water it’s capable of cleaning and would likely only provide moderate benefits to collapsing southern marshes.

fter he refused to endorse the reservoir, Van Lent was sidelined as the Foundation’s chief scientist and quit last year to work for Friends of the Everglades, where he’s now the senior scientist.

During Friday’s hearing, scientists said Van Lent never shied from difficult fights.

In the late 1990s, as the comprehensive Everglades plan was being drafted, he argued it failed to meet promised goals and helped write a critical report.

“That was a very courageous thing to do academically. It was an even more courageous thing to do politically,” said Stuart Pimm, a Duke University ecologist. It “represented to me the extraordinary commitment to getting the story right [and] doing the science properly that has characterized everything I’ve seen Tom do.”

As one of the Everglades earlier modeling experts, Van Lent was able to better understand the complex hydrology of a wetlands sitting atop pocked limestone, said Lake Worth vice mayor Christopher McVoy, a former South Florida Water Management District hydrologist.

“There’s a lot of pressure on a restoration project that’s in the billions and his commitment was, I’m going with the science,” McVoy said. “Whatever the best science, the best modeling, that’s what he is driven by.”

Van Lent’s attorney, Amy Kirkpatrick, urged the judge to only consider harm to the court — not the Foundation.

“They are going to get their day in court. This is about do you feel vindicated?” she said. “If you look at everything that Dr. Van Lent has been through as a result of this contempt and you say to yourself, it’s enough, it’s enough. Then it is enough.”

Van Lent is appealing the contempt conviction. The underlying case continues.

Jenny Staletovich

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environmental Reporter. Her work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.

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Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environmental Reporter. Her work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.