Everglades Foundation vs. Tom Lent: Don’t Go Looking for Good Guys

by | May 1, 2022

As a South Floridian who never ever trusted the powerful Everglades Foundation or its chief scientist Tom Van Lent, I have to tell you, there’s something almost delicious about the sight of these two swamp creatures rolling around in the mud, trying to eat each other whole.

The Everglades Foundation (plaintiff) vs. Tom Van Lent (defendant). I hope you aren’t expecting an innocent party to emerge because there are no good guys here.

In case you want a refresher, Kimberly Miller of the Palm Beach Post was first out with the lawsuit story. Read it here.

On April 6, the Foundation filed a breathless 22-page motion for temporary injunction against Van Lent, claiming he quit, went to another Everglades-focused nonprofit (which turns out to be Friends of the Everglades) and on his way out “stole thousands of confidential and proprietary files. …

“(Van Lent) took multiple copies of the files from his Foundation-issued computer … roughly seventy-nine documents from the Foundation’s cloud storage, and numerous additional files from the Foundation’s servers” — including “internal modeling and anaysis of a public project.”

So desperate was the Foundation to get inside Van Lent’s head during the heist that it contracted with a forensic examiner. According to the lawsuit, the examiner “found Google searches of how to erase documents on internal workspace used by Van Lent and subsequently his entire work email folder was deleted. …

“A legal remedy cannot address the Foundation’s need to recover its confidential, proprietary, and trade secret information from Van Lent, to ensure he does not use or disclose such information, and to prevent the reputational harm and loss of goodwill that would result from such use or disclosure.”

This is a lawsuit that reeks of fear.

If it were human, it would be blowing into a paper bag. Think about it. Van Lent, the guy with the key to the MOST secrets in the most secretive, the richest, the most powerful, most manipulative environmental nonprofit in Florida just raided the closet and helped himself to its skeletons.

Van Lent, 63, has successfully avoided the press since the lawsuit was filed. His only public statement I can find came from this Feb. 28 tweet announcing his departure from the Foundation:

“Today marks my last day after nearly 17 years at the Everglades Foundation @evergfoundation. Will soon work with the @FoEverglades, who put facts over politics. With a legacy of leadership including MSD, Juanita Greene, Maggy Hurchalla and now @EveSamples, I trust them.”

He trusts them. That’s nice. But should they trust HIM?

For the best part of 17 years Van Lent and Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg were buddies on a never-ending road trip. They turned up together all over the place — at press conferences, legislative committees, conferences, fund-raisers, happy hours, everywhere the Foundation felt the need to raise its flag. Eickenberg was the organization’s face, Van Lent was its heft.

Over most of that time I was alone in questioning that heft. At least, publicly. But that may be about to change.

Van Lent, the man whose title for so many years was “senior scientist,” did NO science during his long Foundation tenure. Zero. Neither did his stable of lieutenants. Never tested a drop of water in the Everglades Agricultural Area, in the lake, in Florida Bay, in the St. Lucie or Caloosahatchee estuaries. Instead, Van Lent would pick and choose which scientific papers to endorse, which to twist and which to bury, depending on how closely they matched the Foundation’s agenda.

I always wondered why no one questioned how Van Lent could work so far from water and still be a septic-tank-pollution denier.

The truth is, in spite of the deliberately deceptive titles that said otherwise –“senior scientist” for seven years and “director of science and policy” for 10 — Van Lent is an engineer, not a scientist. And no, the two terms cannot be used interchangeably. https://interestingengineering.com/is-engineering-science

Along the way, here and there, Van Lent’s attempts to skew the facts have been called out — none more visibly than his phony justification for the second EAA reservoir which the Foundation insisted was needed to “flow the water south.” In January 2017 Van Lent presented a report to the state, “Three Estuaries, One Solution.”

To say the paper bombed is a colossal understatement.

In the first place, he pirated a model to produce it, and it was the WRONG model. Busted. And within 24 hours, the sharp response from SFWMD Hydrology and Hydraulics Bureau Chief Akintunde O. Owosina was flying around the Internet.

“Your plan as modeled is not a realistic means to store and send water south,” Owosina’s summary said. “To successfully convey water from Lake Okeechobee through the Water Conservation Areas to Everglades National Park and, subsequently, to Florida Bay, you cannot:

  • “Ignore water quality standards.
  • “Ignore water supply for the environment and existing legal uses.
  • “Ignore the Endangered Species Act.”

Owosina said, “Releasing a report in this form is a misrepresentation of facts.”

On another occasion, also in 2017, Van Lent brought in Clemson University professor Mike Maloney to produce a paper that would prove a southern reservoir would have a far greater economic impact on the region than a northern reservoir. Which he most certainly did. Trouble is, economist Maloney is on a list of scientists and economists you go to when you’ve got a conclusion and you want an expert to provide an argument to support it. Clemson later distanced themselves from his work.

Lest you think Foundation founders are blameless, remember Van Lent takes his marching orders from them. They don’t care if they get busted for a bold-face lie. No matter how crooked their path, environmentalists walk on water in South Florida.

The Foundation was co-founded in the last century by wealthy Orlando developer George Barley and billionaire Paul Tudor Jones. It’s no secret the Foundation controls most of the region’s conservation
groups, propping them up with cash grants in exchange for proactive devotion to the Foundation’s anti-sugar agenda.

The cash cow is fear of sugar. Stoking that fear was a big part of Van Lent’s job. You make sugar responsible for everything deadly — bad water, not enough water, smelly water, fish kills, algal blooms, airborne carcinogens, corporate greed — and just like that you’ve created a donor database that won’t quit.

Last week United Waterfowlers of Florida President Newton Earl Cook told Florida Voices, “I call all the groups beholden to the Everglades Foundation purse strings … ‘one trick ponies.’ They tend to ignore the 96 percent of pollution going into Lake O from north of the Lake (and later east, west and south) and constantly demonize the Everglades Agriculture Area farmers responsible for less than 4 percent of the pollution.”

In 2008 Foundation Founding Director Mary Barley, George Barley’s widow, was on the brink of driving out half her demons when Gov. Charlie Crist offered U.S. Sugar Corp. $1.75 billion to buy 187,000 acres of the company’s Everglades farmland, including its sugar and processing plants. Crist was all-in. He could see himself building a hero’s legacy — the governor who saved Florida’s Everglades.

But as the economy worsened, the state balked. Billionaire Foundation cofounder Paul Tudor Jones didn’t want to see the land deal slip away. Behind the scenes he orchestrated the stop to an under-construction 25-square-mile EAA reservoir, largest of its kind in the world. Some 300 million taxpayer dollars already had been spent on it. With Jones pulling the strings, environmentalists sued to stop construction — the Everglades Foundation calling it “not needed” and “too expensive.”

An unelected, out-of-state billionaire, works a deal behind closed doors, manipulates a governor, waves his hand and Florida taxpayers throw away $300 million.

Had the shut-down never happened, the A-1 reservoir would have been completed in 2010 and would have been ready to store 62 billion gallons of water — the equivalent of more than 5 million residential swimming pools.

The Foundation is a force to be reckoned with. It has a strong stable of wealthy and influential board members, a social-event-of-the-season fundraising gala every winter at the Breakers in Palm Beach and plenty of politicians in its pocket, not the least of whom are U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Florida, and Gov. Ron DeSantis.

During a March 19, 2021 telephone interview, Marathon attorney Frank Greenman, for many years George and Mary Barley’s neighbor, told me DeSantis made a deal with the Foundation while he was running for governor.

“Ron came down here and met with (Foundation Founding Director) Mary Barley. It was no secret around here. DeSantis asked her, ‘What do I have to do to get the environmental community’s recommendation?’ Mary told him she wanted his support on the Foundation’s number-one agenda item, the EAA reservoir, including the funding for it.”

I don’t have to tell you what happened. The Everglades Foundation shocked the world by backing DeSantis instead of Democrat Andrew Gillum. The day after the election, DeSantis began making good on his promise. He fired the South Florida Water Management District board, which Barley and the Foundation claimed was pro-sugar, and installed one of his own.

Cook said Wednesday, “Frankly, DeSantis doesn’t need EF (the Foundation) anymore. I simply don’t believe the reservoir makes any difference except for mouthing the ‘send the water south’ mantra to satisfy the people in Stuart and Fort Myers.”

That’s just a telling snippet of the way the Everglades Foundation, pied piper of humbug and hype, does business. The mind boggles at the secrets this lawsuit is trying to protect and the support it might lose if it doesn’t.

Drama alert: Two motions in the case are set to be heard next week in Miam-Dade Circuit Court: a motion for contempt at 3:30 p.m. Monday and a motion to seal court records at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Nancy Smith has been a newspaper reporter since 1966, first in London, then at The Stuart News/Port St. Lucie News and later at the News as city editor, managing editor and associate editor. She was executive editor at Sunshine State News from 2010 to November 2019. In 1993-94, she was president of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    Nancy, great article.

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