A Miami judge on Thursday ordered a well-regarded scientist to spend 10 days in jail as part of a bitter court battle with his former bosses at the influential Everglades Foundation.
Judge Carlos Lopez said he found Tom Van Lent, considered a leading expert on Everglades hydrology, neither apologetic nor credible following a hearingearlier this month that included testimony from Van Lent’s wife, a a priest, colleagues and an apology from the 67-year-old scientist.
Lopez found Van Lent guilty of criminal contempt earlier this year after he ordered the scientist to stop downloading and deleting information from his computers in an ongoing lawsuit in which the Foundation accused Van Lent of stealing trade secrets.
In a brief text Thursday, Van Lent said he was still processing the jail sentence and referred questions to his attorney, Michael Rayboun.
“It’s inexplicable,” Rayboun said of the sentence. “Even a first time DUI, there’s no jail. A petty theft, a battery. I mean it’s beyond punitive.”
The sentencing order did not say when or where Van Lent would need to report to jail. Rayboun, who has appealed the judge’s guilty verdict, said he will ask appellate judges to suspend the sentence until the appeal is decided.
Earlier this year, Lopez ordered Van Lent to pay the Foundation’s attorney bills totaling nearly $178,000. Van Lent filed for bankruptcy this month.
Dispute over a controversial project
Van Lent landed in court last year after he quit the Foundation where he’d worked for 17 years amid an ongoing dispute over a controversial Everglades reservoir project that he refused to endorse.
On his last day, Van Lent tweeted that he was going to work for another nonprofit, Friends of the Everglades, who “put facts over politics.” A month later, the Foundation sued, accusing Van Lent of stealing trade secrets and breach of contract.
Foundation attorneys also obtained an injunction from Judge Lopez, ordering Van Lent to return all Foundation material, hand over his computer, hard drives and other electronic devices, and stop deleting any information from the devices. In a rare move, the judge initially sealed both the complaint and injunction.
After a settlement deal fell apart, Foundation attorneys accused Van Lent of defying the injunction. Lopez found him guilty in May.
At his sentencing on Dec. 15 Van Lent apologized to the judge, saying, “I had not intention of flouting the directive of the court or dismissing the court’s authority.”
Judge Lopez, however, rejected the explanation and ignored his apology. “The court further notes that defendant did not show remorse or apologize for his contemptuous conduct,” Lopez wrote.
Van Lent has denied stealing any documents and explained that he only deleted duplicate Foundation material that the Foundation already had. In an episode of WLRN’s podcast Bright Lit Place, he said the information he deleted from his work and personal devices included banking records, tax information and other personal documents that he did not think the injunction covered.
The Everglades Foundation thanked the court Thursday and said in a statement that it only took legal action after Van Lent refused to return data and documents.
“Dr. Van Lent ultimately violated the court order to stop deleting the Foundation’s materials and was found to be in criminal contempt of court,” the statement said. “The Foundation is thankful to the Court for its attention to this matter.”
Whether Van Lent stole information, however, has not been proven. In both court and an interview on Bright Lit Place, Foundation officials could not say what may have been taken.
Refusal to back ‘crown jewel’ project
Van Lent first got into trouble with his Foundation bosses after refusing to back the nearly $4 billion reservoir project touted by both the Foundation and Gov. Ron DeSantis as the “crown jewel” of Everglades restoration. When he refused to gloss over problems, Van Lent was sidelined as the group’s chief scientist.
At twice the depth of the original plan and only a third of the size, scientists worry it won’t be able to accomplish two critical objectives for restoration: to store and clean water to send to southern marshes. The U.S Army Corps and Interior Department raised concerns. And in its final agreement with the state, the Army Corps said it won’t agree to fully use the 10,500-acre reservoir until the state meets court-ordered water quality limits.
In the sentencing hearing, a trio of Everglades scientists came to Van Lent’s defense.
“His character is outstanding and his integrity is outstanding,” said Bob Johnson, who retired from the National Park Service’s South Florida science center after 40 years, including about 25 years as its director. “You can trust what Tom says.”
Friends of the Everglades executive director Eve Samples, Van Lent’s new boss, said the Foundation was letting spite get in the way of sound science.
“The legal pursuit of Dr. Van Lent and this decision are entirely shocking and, beyond that, really distracting from the important work of Everglades restoration,” she said. “I have never seen anything like this.”