A judge in Tallahassee declined Wednesday to order Florida criminal investigators to return computers, phones and other electronics seized from a former state data scientist who has accused Gov. Ron DeSantis of manipulating public information about the pandemic for political purposes.
Rebekah Jones, 31, is suspected by authorities of hacking into a state emergency health network to transmit a message taunting the governor.
Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper deferred ruling on a request by lawyers for Jones, who had sought the immediate return of three computers, two cell phones and three thumb drives seized by state investigators during a dramatic search of her home in Tallahassee on Dec. 7. In a victory for the government, the judge said the probable cause cited by agents to justify the search warrant appeared proper.
The judge said he was unwilling to force the government to return Jones’ property until he can learn whether the state intends to file criminal charges against her. Cooper did not sign the search warrant in the case. He is a circuit judge handling civil cases, presiding over Jones’ lawsuit filed Dec. 20 seeking damages for what she describes as violations of her Constitutional rights related to the search.
“I’m not granting and I’m not denying,” Cooper said. “I’m deferring ruling on this motion pending finding out whether there is any intent, whether there has been any decision made to either one, we’re not filing criminal charges or two, we might be or we are going to.”
A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Gretl Plessinger, said after the court hearing that the investigation remains an active case. A forensic analysis of hundreds of gigabytes’ worth of data can take months even for skilled investigators.
The high-profile fight with Florida’s Republican governor has catapulted Jones into the spotlight, where she makes regular appearances on cable television programs accusing DeSantis of manipulating public data on the pandemic.
Jones has enjoyed support among Democrats across the state and raised $514,645 in contributions from two online fundraising appeals, including $254,460 intended to help with her legal fees, personal security, moving costs and other expenses. She has said she will campaign for the Democratic candidate when DeSantis runs for re-election next year.
Jones, who has maintained she was not responsible for sending the message over the state health network, has not been charged in the hacking case. She watched the Zoom court hearing from her new home near Washington, D.C. She made no substantive remarks during the hearing; at one point she raised her hand to say something but was not recognized by the judge or her attorney.
The hearing was notable because it provided some early glimpses of Jones’ legal strategy in what might become a sensational felony criminal case involving a feud with the governor and the deadly pandemic.
Jones’ lawyer, Rick Johnson, said evidence was flimsy connecting the scientist to the unauthorized message. Sent Nov. 10, it 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, investigators 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.
Johnson also said the health department’s messaging system was so negligently protected – the password to access it was published online in state documents – that whoever sent the message was effectively invited to use it. The state law at issue prohibits unauthorized access.
“Anybody in the world had the authority to use that network,” he said.
Cooper, the judge, appeared unconvinced. He said an unattended vegetable stand operated under the honor system for payment was not an invitation for thieves.
Jones said state officials asked her to manipulate COVID-19 data, but the governor has disputed the claim and described it as a “conspiracy bandwagon.”
Jones has been running her own competing dashboards online, called Florida COVID Action and The COVID Monitor, with extensive information on Florida COVID-19 cases and national data including student and teacher infections, hospital bed openings and county population breakdowns.
Meanwhile, another judge in Tallahassee on Wednesday set a February trial date for a misdemeanor stalking case against Jones involving an ex-boyfriend. Her lawyer said Jones had earlier agreed to a plea agreement with prosecutors, who decided not to move forward with the agreement pending the hacking investigation involving the unauthorized health department message.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.