At the start of the summer, Dr. Thomas Van Lent—a 65-year-old hydrologist—was bird-watching with his wife when he discovered he had been found guilty of criminal contempt.

The judgment had been the result of a case brought against him by his former employer the Everglades Foundation—an environmental organization “with a mission to restore the Everglades through science-based strategies”—at which Van Lent had worked for 17 years, and been the director of science and policy since 2012.

The foundation had accused him of stealing “trade secrets” as well as an internal directory containing the phone numbers and addresses of its high-profile board members, including the singer Jimmy Buffett and golf great Jack Nicklaus.

The foundation claimed that Van Lent had engaged in a “secret campaign of theft and destruction of sensitive Foundation materials” before he left for a new job at a smaller conservation organization, Friends of the Everglades. Now he faced up to a year in jail and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Van Lent was angry but not surprised by the verdict. He had admitted to deleting files from his work laptop and to downloading others to a new computer, but these files, he said, were mostly family photos and health records, and he had wanted to clear storage for the work laptop’s next owner. As for the directory, he says he downloaded it to mail “thank-you” notes to his longtime colleagues.

The environmentalist Thomas Van Lent faces significant jail time.

After an initial settlement fell apart, the case returned to a Miami-Dade circuit court judge who ordered Van Lent to return all files to the foundation—which Van Lent says he did. But the Everglades Foundation said he had not and, with the help of a forensic examiner, won judgment against him.

Van Lent questions how a conservation organization could even have “trade secrets.” He traces the “hyper-aggressive” legal campaign against him to a tweet he sent almost a year after his departure from the Everglades Foundation. In it, Van Lent said he was joining Friends of the Everglades because they “put facts over politics.” A couple of weeks later the litigation began, a desperate attempt, says Van Lent, to keep him from revealing “that the foundation has lost its way in how far it has strayed from its stated mission … with actions that run counter to facts and science.” The reason for this, Van Lent says, is “to show fealty to Florida’s governor,” Ron DeSantis.

“Dr. Van Lent’s credibility and claims should be assessed with the knowledge that he has been found guilty of indirect criminal contempt,” says a spokesperson for the Everglades Foundation. “Per the Court, his deceptions ‘hindered the administration of justice.’”

Local Hero

Outside of Florida, DeSantis is known as a climate skeptic. DeSantis has barred state officials from investing public money to promote environmental causes, and just days ago he approved climate-denial videos to be played in Florida’s schools, all while the temperature of ocean water off the state’s Gulf Coast rose to 100 degrees, a world record.

Yet, within Florida, DeSantis gained the governorship by speaking out against polluting industries and by promising fixes for Florida’s many environmental catastrophes. He has managed to walk this enviro-opportunist path thanks in part to the unofficial backing of the Everglades Foundation, a scientific organization that has become an effective beard for DeSantis’s two-faced ways.

The relationship between the Everglades Foundation and DeSantis began in 2018, when the then congressman entered Florida’s gubernatorial race amid a catastrophic red tide—and not of the political variety. Carried via tropical storm from the Gulf and up the entire Florida coastline, a toxic red-algae bloom—compounded by runoff from farm fertilizers, lawn pesticides, and urban development—had locked Florida in a state of emergency.

Just days ago, DeSantis approved climate-denial videos to be played in Florida’s schools, all while the temperature of ocean water off the coast of Florida rose to 100 degrees, a world record.

Meanwhile, 50 miles west of Palm Beach, toxic blue-green algae was choking Lake Okeechobee, commonly known as the “liquid heart” of the Everglades. The algae deprived the water of oxygen, decimating the delicate eco-system’s flora and fauna and contaminating the water supply of eight million Floridians.

Up until that point, Congressman DeSantis had just a 2 percent career score from the League of Conservation Voters—an environmental advocacy group—but he saw in Lake Okeechobee’s plight an opportunity to campaign for the governorship on an environmental ticket. (The incumbent governor, Rick Scott, whose gutting of bills regulating development had earned him the nickname “Red Tide Rick,” was stepping down to run for the Senate.)

Sugarcane fields are responsible for many algae outbreaks in Lake Okeechobee.

Lake Okeechobee is located in the middle of the Everglades Agricultural Area (E.A.A.), 700,000 acres of highly productive farmland that’s responsible for providing one in five teaspoons of all the sugar consumed in the United States. Environmentalists have long accused Big Sugar—namely, Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar, which have controlled the E.A.A. since 1948—of exacerbating algae blooms by dumping nutrient-rich wastewater into the lake, something the industry has denied.

A $3 billion E.A.A. reservoir project had been designed to mitigate algae blooms and restore clean-water flow to the southern Everglades. But its construction by the Army Corps of Engineers had been stalled for nearly two decades because the project required Florida Crystals to give up its leases on state-owned land. The campaigning DeSantis promised to push it through.

In the Republican primary, DeSantis was up against Adam Putnam, Florida’s commissioner of agriculture, and pushed his environmental credentials hard. While Putnam was backed by Big Sugar and their affiliates to the tune of roughly $8.5 million, DeSantis was careful to stress his commitment to “environmental stewardship” and coastal “resilience,” while firmly rejecting the label of being a “global-warming person.”

He announced that he was an enemy to special interests too, and told business-oriented PACs not to give him any donations from the sugar industry—not that the industry was all that keen on contributing to him anyway.

Happier times: Trump and DeSantis visit Lake Okeechobee in 2019.

Back in 2013, DeSantis had positioned himself as a proponent of unbridled free trade and had backed a bill eliminating the U.S. Sugar Program, which for decades had limited sugar imports, keeping the price of U.S. sugar artificially high. The bill failed, but it had signaled to the sugar industry that DeSantis was not going to be its champion.

DeSantis won the G.O.P. primary easily, defeating sugar “errand boy” Putnam by 20 percentage points, but the general election, against Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, a progressive Democrat backed by the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, would prove much more challenging. Fortunately for DeSantis, he found a coterie of rich philanthropists to bankroll his brand of conservation, free trade, and low taxation—chief among them the hedge-fund manager Paul Tudor Jones II, co-founder of the Everglades Foundation.

Jones himself had been at war with Big Sugar for 30 years, ever since he started the Everglades Foundation, in 1993. In 1996, he campaigned for a bill to tax Florida-grown sugar at a penny per pound. U.S. Sugar struck back, pointing to the high levels of sewage in water samples taken offshore from his seven-acre, 16-bathroom Islamorada estate, suggesting his septic system was dumping human waste into the sea, although the science behind these claims seemed highly dubious.

In 2018, Jones finally found his anti–Big Sugar champion in DeSantis and donated $250,000 to a PAC supporting DeSantis two weeks before Election Day. DeSantis swept to victory, and at a foundation benefit dinner in 2019, Jones gushed, “Like the dragons in Game of Thrones, like the cavalry from the West, our prayers have been answered.”

It’s been a strange alliance. While the Everglades Foundation regularly frames saving the Everglades as part of the fight against climate change, DeSantis has been a vocal critic of the science, doubting global warming even exists. But the relationship offers something to both sides: DeSantis gets his environmental credentials burnished by the Everglades Foundation—who are careful not to contradict his global-warming skepticism—while the foundation gets access to political power to help improve the Everglades as well as a chance to poke Big Sugar in the eye.

Former Illinois governor Bruce Rauner, an Everglades Foundation board member.

It should be stated that the Everglades Foundation has never officially endorsed DeSantis. And as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpolitical organization, it cannot bankroll DeSantis directly. However, the foundation’s major players are under no such restrictions. As well as Jones’s donations to the governor and his campaign PACs, which so far amount to at least $650,000, since 2018 DeSantis has received $960,000 from Everglades Foundation board member Bruce Rauner (a venture capitalist who, as governor of Illinois, appointed a coal lobbyist to head the Illinois E.P.A.) and at least $25,000 from the foundation’s previous chairman, Marshall Field V (the retail heir and former publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times). Meanwhile, the foundation has employed Florida lobbyist Rick Iarossi—a DeSantis fundraiser and close adviser—as an independent contractor for the past five years.

“The Everglades Foundation has 32 board members, who represent an array of Florida regions, diverse industries, and political inclinations,” says a spokesperson for the foundation. “Donations made by board members are made on an individual basis, and are not connected to the Foundation.”

Supporters of DeSantis view his environmental efforts as earnest and effective. Early in his first term, he appointed a scientist—one who believed in climate change—to lead his new Office of Environmental Accountability and Transparency. He gained federal funding from Donald Trump’s White House, replaced some of Scott’s sugar-friendly appointees, and committed $2.5 billion to the restoration of the Everglades, a number he’s since surpassed by $800 million. Chief among his projects was the “crown jewel,” the E.A.A. reservoir project, which broke ground in February of this year in a highly photographed ceremony.

Jones gushed, “Like the dragons in Game of Thrones, like the cavalry from the West, our prayers have been answered.”

At the time of the groundbreaking, Everglades Foundation C.E.O. Eric Eikenberg—who regularly appears alongside the governor at speaking engagements and lauds his commitment to the environment on social media—wrote an op-ed for the Florida Sun Sentinel, praising the reservoir as “the turning of a new page in the decades-long effort to restore America’s Everglades.” His views were backed by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Audubon Florida, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, who deemed the event, respectively, a “major milestone,” a “critical moment,” a “huge step forward,” and a “new era.” These four nonprofits received a combined $725,000 from the Everglades Foundation as grants in 2020 and 2021, according to tax records.

But the chorus of approval is by no means unanimous. Due to limited state-owned land and Big Sugar’s refusal to give up their leases, the version of the reservoir that’s being built is only two-thirds the area but four times the depth of the original plan. Supporters say the smaller, deeper version will help keep the Everglades clean. But critics say it is fatally flawed.

Algae hugs the coast of Lake Okeechobee in 2020.

Citing research from the award-winning wetlands ecologist William Mitsch, Friends of the Everglades says the reservoir will be too small to improve water quality and too deep to clean, making it a hotbed for the very algae it’s supposed to alleviate. “My assessment is that they took what they could get,” Eve Samples, the director of Friends of the Everglades, says. “[But] for us, there’s not a lot of time for half measures and political wins.” The Sierra Club joined Friends of the Everglades in accusing the governor, and those supporting his agenda, of “greenwashing” and “looking for a quick political, rather than ecological, fix.” Noticeably, neither Friends of the Everglades nor the Sierra Club receives grants from the Everglades Foundation.

It begs the question: Are the Everglades Foundation and its vassal charities keener on keeping Ron DeSantis happy than in properly protecting the Everglades?

Swamp Thing

Van Lent says he began to notice a shift in the Everglades Foundation’s mission—from environmental science to political advocacy—around 2017, when a bill authorizing the construction of the new, smaller E.A.A. reservoir was moving through the state legislature.

When Van Lent and other scientists from the Everglades Foundation published a report raising concerns about the reservoir’s water quality, the foundation’s C.E.O., Eric Eikenberg, “vehemently objected,” allegedly prompting a shouting match between Van Lent and Eikenberg.

Van Lent recalls Eikenberg telling him that “there’s science, and there’s political science, and political science trumps science.” “Gradually,” says Van Lent, “it became clear that was the philosophy of the foundation.” The foundation disputes Eikenberg ever said these words.

Van Lent alleges that the death of foundation co-founder and legendary environmentalist Nathaniel Reed, in 2018, fundamentally transformed the foundation into a political organization. He points to the departure of five other scientists from the foundation in the past 18 months as further evidence of its political mission creep.

“There’s science, and there’s political science, and political science trumps science.”

While Van Lent suggested the scientists had concerns about damaging their careers, a foundation spokesperson explains that “many of these scientists have been recruited to be leaders in their respective fields,” while highlighting its current “full science team of expert Ph.D.’s in the areas of hydrogeology, biogeochemistry, economics, ecology, resiliency, water-resource engineering, and hydrology.”

However, Carl Hiaasen, the Florida author and environmental advocate, says the foundation’s coziness with DeSantis has “put him off” after being a longtime supporter.

A vocal critic of the governor, Hiaasen, who in February attended the foundation’s annual fundraiser, at the luxury Palm Beach resort the Breakers, says that some attendees felt “uncomfortable” with DeSantis’s presence and avoided being photographed with him.

A mangrove island in Florida’s Everglades National Park.

Hiaasen is all too aware of the governor’s ecological flexibility. Two years ago, in one of his final columns for The Miami Herald, Hiaasen wrote about the governor’s betrayal of the people of Key West. After multiple municipal referendums were passed to limit the size of cruise ships visiting their port, Governor DeSantis signed legislation to reverse the local votes. (Companies tied to the operator of the Key West pier where most cruise ships dock gave almost $1 million to Friends of Ron DeSantis, a political committee operated by the governor, in the weeks before he bowed to the cruise-ship lobby.)

But while Hiaasen acknowledges that there may be some authenticity to the governor’s environmentalism, he says the real test is how much money he’ll take from Big Sugar. “DeSantis can be bought,” Hiaasen says. “But for how much?”

In many ways, DeSantis already has been bought. As revealed by ProPublica and The Palm Beach Post, “black snow,” from pre-harvest cane burning by the sugar industry, regularly rains down on the Everglades’ largely Black and Hispanic communities, causing respiratory issues and forcing children to stay indoors. Yet, in 2021, DeSantis signed Florida’s right-to-farm bill, which included “particle emissions” in a list of protected farming by-products. The day after signing the bill, DeSantis received $100,000 from the Associated Industries of Florida—a PAC run by six corporations, including Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar. The group has since given him hundreds of thousands of dollars more.

The Everglades Foundation, which for so long campaigned for the restoration of the Everglades and against Big Sugar, had to watch their cavalry from the West side with Big Sugar against them. It seems, as Van Lent says he was warned, that political science had trumped environmental science.

As for Van Lent, in an open letter from its board, Friends of the Everglades called the Everglades Foundation’s litigation against him “bad for the Everglades movement,” while characterizing his “clear-eyed scientific expertise” as “crucial to progress in the Everglades.” It urged the parties to come to a settlement “so we can collaboratively engage in the real struggle to protect and restore the only Everglades in the world.” Van Lent, who claims the foundation’s legal battle has had a “chilling effect” on scientific collaboration to restore the wetland, is preparing to appeal.

Meanwhile, Jones, according to records recently disclosed by the Tampa Bay Times, is missing from a recent list of billionaire donors funding DeSantis’s fading run for the Oval Office. It seems the tide might finally be turning for DeSantis’s environmental backers.

Carrie Monahan is a journalist living in Brooklyn