Escalating a simmering political feud over Florida’s handling of the pandemic, state police seized computers inside the Tallahassee home of a self-described health department whistleblower as part of a criminal investigation into whether she transmitted an unauthorized warning over a government message service.
Hours after she published a dramatic video of police entering her family’s home early Monday – with their guns drawn – Rebekah Jones, 31, a former geographic information systems manager for Florida’s health department’s COVID-19 dashboard, denied in a series of media interviews that she sent the unauthorized message last month. She accused Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of using the police investigation to intimidate her.
“Nope, I’m not a hacker,” Jones said on CNN.
The new investigation focused on what police described as someone hacking into a system used to transmit emergency communications to send a message Nov. 10 to state officials coordinating the public health response to the pandemic. The message said, “It’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead. You know this is wrong. You don’t have to be a part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it’s too late.”
In court papers, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said technical logs from the incident included an internet address for a residential online account that traced back to Jones’ home in Tallahassee. Jones was fired from the health department in May and was no longer authorized to use the messaging system, the court records said.
“After speaking to my attorneys and looking over the evidence they said they have, I actually think they’re not after me,” Jones said on CNN. “This is just a very thinly veiled attempt of the governor to intimidate scientists and get back at me.”
She said the governor “needs to worry less about what I’m writing about and more about the people who are sick and dying in his state. And doing this to me will not stop me from reporting data, ever.”
A spokesman for the governor directed press inquiries to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and otherwise did not comment. The state health department also referred questions to state police.
The affidavit requesting permission to search Jones’ family condominium, signed by a state special agent, covered the seizure of computer hardware, cell phones, storage and flash drives, keyboards, mice, printers, scanners, software and correspondence. It was unclear what devices police took, but it could take days or weeks to analyze them even as part of a high-profile criminal investigation.
“They took my phone and the computer I use every day to post the case numbers in Florida, and school cases for the entire country,” Jones wrote on Twitter. “They took evidence of corruption at the state level.”
Since she was fired in May for what DeSantis said was insubordination, Jones has waged a public campaign criticizing the governor’s response to the pandemic. She accused state officials of asking her to manipulate COVID-19 data, but the governor disputed the claim and described it as a “conspiracy bandwagon.”
Jones has also been running her own competing dashboards online, called Florida COVID Action and The COVID Monitor, with more extensive information on Florida COVID-19 cases and national data including student and teacher infections, hospital bed openings and county population breakdowns. Anyone can view and download her current and cumulative charts for free.
“I do this so others don’t have to,” she said in an interview last month with Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. “People without information are chained.”
Jones on Monday evening published a short video of police entering her home, which she said happened just after 8 a.m., which showed some of the officers with guns drawn. She said police pointed a gun in her face and at her children. The video showed officers yelling and aiming their weapons upstairs after Jones said her husband and two young children were there. Jones compared the officers to the Gestapo, the ruthless, secret police of Nazi Germany.
The commissioner for the state department of law enforcement, Rick Swearingen, said in an emailed statement that weapons were never pointed at anyone in Jones’ home. He said Jones did not open the door for police for 20 minutes after they first arrived and contacted her.
Her phone and computer will be analyzed forensically and any evidence would be sent to the state attorney for consideration of criminal charges, he said.
Jones’ claims against DeSantis have drawn support by Democrats. Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is expected to run against DeSantis in 2022, wanted Jones to appear at a Cabinet meeting in May and spoke with Jones ahead of another Cabinet meeting in September about the governor’s handling of the pandemic.
“From the start of this pandemic, we’ve seen efforts by Florida’s government to manipulate public info that belongs to you,” Fried said, praising Jones’ work as exemplary.
Meanwhile, Robert Morris of Tallahassee, the defense lawyer for Jones in a misdemeanor stalking case involving a former boyfriend, resigned from the case, according to court documents filed Monday in Leon County. The lawyer said he discovered that a family member he did not identify was involved in an active investigation against Jones, requiring his recusal for ethical reasons. He offered to provide a fuller explanation to the judge privately.
Since July 2019, Jones also has been involved in that stalking case after publishing the first part of her manifesto, which was a 68-page document that included private details of her relationship with her former boyfriend. The charges originally included sexual cyberharassment and cyberstalking, but prosecutors dropped those charges within a few weeks. Police said the document included sexually explicit text messages and nude photographs.
Jones was the man’s former professor at Florida State University, and she was fired after threatening to give a failing grade to his roommate for revenge. Jones said that their relationship lasted for six months until October 2017, and that he is the father to her child born in July 2018.
Aside from the 342-page manifesto Jones wrote about the relationship, court records cite felony charges and civil cases involving their relationship. Jones was initially charged in March 2018 with felony robbery, trespass and contempt of court for violating a domestic violence injunction, but prosecutors dropped these charges. She was also accused of kicking her ex-boyfriend’s SUV door in October 2017, but that chase also was dropped.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org