Everglades Foundation files contempt motion in suit over docs allegedly stolen by ex-employee

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The Foundation has not responded to comment regarding what is contained within those documents.

The Everglades Foundation has filed a motion for contempt, seeking a judicial remedy against an ex-employee the Foundation says left the organization and took several secret documents without permission.

The Foundation has filed a lawsuit against Thomas Van Lent, who the organization says left with documents before he joined a rival organization, Friends of the Everglades.

The court granted an earlier motion for a temporary injunction, requiring Van Lent to return the documents in question, deliver his computer equipment to a Foundation investigator in California, and deliver a hard drive and other storage devices the company says may contain those materials.

Following the order, the Foundation last week submitted a motion for contempt against Van Lent. The Foundation’s attorneys said Van Lent failed to show that he “ceased all use or disclosure of the Foundation’s Confidential Information” or “ceased use or deletion of any materials” in his possession, as required by the order.

Still, it remains unclear what precise information is contained within those documents. The Foundation did not respond to a request for comment submitted earlier Friday to shed light on the nature of those materials.

The Everglades Foundation is a major ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis and has been intricately involved in water policy in the state. That makes the case — and the content of those documents — of interest among the public and those following debates over Everglades restoration and other water issues.

The Foundation says Van Lent left the organization earlier this year and took materials, stored them on other multiple devices, and deleted versions from the Foundation’s computers. In its original injunction motion, the Foundation vaguely described the nature of the documents, and argued they are of value for the firm and “highly confidential.”

“The Foundation possesses trade secrets in its analyses performed and presentations given in response to strategic questions posed by the Board of Directors or Executive Leadership Team, directories of staff, board members and donors, models and model libraries created, or assembled and refined by the Foundation’s staff, model input and output files collected, assembled or developed by the Foundation, compilations of data assembled by the Foundation, and any analyses, internal reports, white papers, confidential presentations, internal emails, and documents/memos and reports based on such data,” the motion reads.

“These materials constitute and incorporate information that is not generally known or available to the public, and that has economic value to the Foundation, including because it provides support to the Foundation’s work, its efforts to seek research grants, and its efforts to secure funding for its annual budget.”

Elsewhere, the firm says the documents include “the Foundation’s internal modeling and analysis of a government project, and drafts, notes, multiple email backups, confidential presentations, and other work product created for the Foundation, which is non-public information the Foundation treats as highly confidential.”

The foundation asserted Van Lent could sell the documents or use them to seek grants or consulting work, and that he took them in violation of his employment agreement.

What’s clear is the separation was not amicable. In late February, Van Lent posted the following on his personal Twitter account: “Today marks my last day after nearly 17 years at the Everglades Foundation. … Will soon work with the (Friends of the Everglades), who put facts over politics. With a legacy of leadership including (Marjory Stoneman Douglas), Juanita Greene, Maggy Hurchalla and now (Eve Samples), I trust them.”

Those assertions that his new organization would “put facts over politics” and that he could “trust them” appeared to be shots at his former employer.

Van Lent formerly worked at the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) before taking on a role with the Everglades Foundation. But his work product has come into question before while he was working at the Foundation.

In 2017, while lawmakers worked on water policy issues ahead of the Legislative Session, Van Lent submitted research asserting the state should purchase additional farmland south of Lake Okeechobee necessary to build a reservoir to help conservation efforts.

But that research came under fire from SFWMD Hydrology and Hydraulics Bureau Chief Akintunde O. Owosina, who wrote to lawmakers pushing back against claims that southern land purchases were necessary and even questioned the validity of the models used by the Foundation.

Owosina said of Van Lent’s research, “the assumptions you made in the model input were obviously selected to reduce northern storage and create an outcome in favor of southern storage.” Other SFWMD representatives called Van Lent’s efforts “misleading” and “the product of an agenda-driven academic exercise.”

Eventually, lawmakers decided against Van Lent’s proposal.

Florida Politics also reached out to Van Lent to get his take on the document dustup and whether he felt pressured to produce research he could not “trust,” as he alluded to in his late-February tweet. Van Lent has not replied.

Van Lent isn’t the only scientist who has recently departed the Everglades Foundation. In 2021, Melodie Naja — then the Foundation’s director of science — left for a position at the National Park Service. As 2021 moved into 2022, the Foundation’s senior hydrologist, Rajendra Paudel, took a position at the U.S. Department of Interior.

Ryan Nicol

Ryan Nicol covers news out of South Florida for Florida Politics. Ryan is a native Floridian who attended undergrad at Nova Southeastern University before moving on to law school at Florida State. After graduating with a law degree he moved into the news industry, working in TV News as a writer and producer, along with some freelance writing work. If you'd like to contact him, send an email to [email protected]


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