- Both the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post asked a court to unseal witness testimony in a high profile criminal case
- The Herald justified its intervention in the case by telling readers that “what happens in the courts is supposed to be open to public scrutiny.”
- Strangely, neither the Herald nor the Post have taken any interest in the highly unusual sealing of court records in the case of the Everglades Foundation vs. Thomas Van Lent
- Tom Van Lent was the chief scientist for The Everglades Foundation whose scientific data influenced billions of dollars in state and federal spending
Earlier this week, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post took it upon themselves, as our self-appointed protectors of public information, to fight the order of a criminal court judge who sealed the testimony of one of the witnesses in a high profile fraud case. The witness in question is the ex-wife of a local prosecutor, both of whom are friends with the accused.
We can presume the newspapers took up the matter because of the well-known personalities involved, rather than any legitimate public interest. The details of the case really don’t matter. What does matter, though, is that both the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post think you, dear reader, have a right to know what sort of juicy gossip has been hidden behind the court’s seal. Neither newspaper could have any clue what the testimony might reveal, nor even if the sealed record has anything at all to do with the public interest. The bottom line is that neither newspaper likes it that a court has sealed records without telling the public why. Here’s a handful of explanations offered both to their readers and to the judge to justify why they intervened in the case:
- “With a few exceptions involving family issues, what happens in the courts is supposed to be open to public scrutiny.”
- “The sealed document involves matters of great public interest concerning criminal allegations against a prominent local businessman and also involves the state attorney.”
- “This case garners particularly heightened public scrutiny because Straub also has strong connections to powerful public figures within the community.”
It’s not clear how either of the state’s largest and most influential newspapers might know the testimony involves matters of “great public interest,” especially since the testimony has been sealed. But both newspapers clearly believe there is a public interest in at least making sure the judge in the case is following the law and has a legitimate reason to seal the testimony.
How perplexing, then, that neither newspaper has shown even the slightest curiosity toward a court case of statewide interest that also involves sealed court records: the Everglades Foundation vs. Tom Van Lent. One would think both the Herald and the Post would have filed similar legal briefs demanding that the judge open those records, too. Especially since the Everglades Foundation raises money from high profile celebrities and spends those dollars to influence public policy – including how billions of state and federal dollars have been spent on water quality projects in Southeast Florida over the last 20 years.
They certainly can’t argue that the case isn’t juicy enough:
“A prominent environmental scientist stands accused of stealing secret documents and destroying research before quitting his more than a decade-long job at the powerful Everglades Foundation, citing concerns about the nonprofit group’s emphasis on politics.”
All that cloak-and-dagger drama, and still the Palm Beach Post failed to mention that the Everglades Foundation asked for – and the judge granted – a motion to seal records in this case.
To recap – the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post claim to be fierce advocates for transparency, and intervened in a case this week to unseal records involving some local South Florida personalities who are largely unknown across the rest of the state.
Yet in a different case with similarly sealed court records that were asked to be kept secret by the politically-connected Everglades Foundation (an organization that the Palm Beach Post describes as “powerful”), neither newspaper has lifted a finger.
Why not? The case involves the Foundation accusing its former chief scientist – a former media darling – of stealing “secret documents” and “destroying research” that has almost certainly played some role in shaping public policy in recent years.
Yet despite the obvious public interest, neither the Miami Herald nor the Palm Beach Post have paid much attention to the Everglades Foundation matter. The Post did cover the initial lawsuit filed by the Everglades Foundation, but the Herald hasn’t covered the issue at all. Which is unusual, because they used to love them some Tom Van Lent. The Herald has quoted him extensively as a subject matter expert on everything from rising sea levels to algae blooms. But now that he’s an enemy of the Everglades Foundation, the poor guy doesn’t even merit a mention when he gets accused of stealing “secret science data.”
Sadly, judging solely from the near-complete silence from two of the state’s largest newspapers, juicy divorce gossip is a “matter of great public interest.” But highly sensitive scientific research data sealed at the request of a powerful political organization with influence over billions of dollars in state and federal spending isn’t even worth covering.
What do you think?