By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By Frank Owen
By Allie Conti
Ron Jones, a microbiologist and renowned expert on the fragile Everglades ecosystem, spent months devising the details of a contract to transfer laboratory equipment from Florida International University, his former employer, to Portland State University in Oregon, where he now works. Attorneys were close to finalizing the deal when New Times published a story ("Eye on the Everglades," January 22) detailing his battle with FIU administrators and subsequent decision to leave the university. The next day FIU canceled the equipment-transfer contract via e-mail, exercising a clause that allowed either party to back out for any reason; the school gave no reason.
FIU spokeswoman Maydel Santana-Bravo says the New Times story had nothing to do with the school's decision to cancel the transaction. "We have a new vice president for research [who] started on January 15," she says. "He has asked that a halt be put [on the transfer] because he wants to review the equipment."
Jones, who willingly answered questions for the first story, now refers New Times to his attorneys at Lehtinen, Vargas & Riedi. "We are considering our options and very carefully reviewing the First and Fourteenth amendments," says Claudio Riedi. "There could be very serious repercussions if Mr. Jones's rights are being affected."
Cancellation clauses are not uncommon in these types of contracts, the lawyer says, but they are generally used as an escape hatch in the event of unforeseen developments, not to punish people for speaking their minds. "An earlier draft of the agreement had a 'muzzle clause' requiring that Ron Jones not make any negative or derogatory remarks about FIU," Riedi continues. "We had them take that out."
Once considered a leading light on FIU's faculty, Jones founded the Southeast Environmental Research Center (SERC), a notable institution that annually attracts about $6.5 million in grants. After eighteen years at FIU, he resigned in frustration this past September and moved to Oregon, though he planned on returning to Florida periodically to continue his Everglades research. Jones offered to let FIU keep about $200,000 in equipment and a $1.2 million grant if the school would let him use the SERC labs occasionally to supervise projects financed by the grant money. FIU flatly refused the offer and hostilities escalated, culminating in the university threatening Jones with arrest if he set foot in the research center.
The scientist's overbearing manner is almost as well known as his groundbreaking work on Everglades water quality, and he had apparently fostered enough animosity over the years that some in the FIU administration and faculty were happy to see him gone -- at any cost. They also apparently feared the worst from him: Messages from FIU general counsel Cristina Mendoza became more menacing, and in October she inadvertently sent Jones an e-mail, evidently intended for a SERC staffer, inquiring whether Jones had enough access to sabotage SERC's computer system. "If you had a really mean person who's been hurting people at FIU -- that's one thing," Riedi says. "Ron Jones is simply eccentric. And he doesn't suffer fools gladly."