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Rebekah Jones And The Consequences Of Whistleblowing

(Graphic by Kristin Bausch and Melissa Hernandez De La Cruz/WUFT News)
(Graphic by Kristin Bausch and Melissa Hernandez De La Cruz/WUFT News)

One mid-January morning, Rebekah Jones Zoomed into a virtual Leon County courtroom. Though she had spent the better part of 2020 vociferously sounding an alarm, she was quiet that afternoon. 

Her blue eyes darted across the screen. The prosecution and defense teams sifted through piles of papers, readying their cases as spectators and journalists virtually filed in.

A year ago, few people had heard of Jones, a former geographic information systems manager for the state of Florida. Now, everyone wanted to know her story. 

Her audio on mute, Jones, 31, smiled politely off and on, softening her stance. She needed to make a good impression. 

Behind her, boxes filled the floor of her new home in suburban Washington D.C. She had moved from her townhouse in Tallahassee late last year after a dizzying few months in the news. She felt she had to; she didn’t think her family was safe anymore, not after a law enforcement raid on her home in December. 

Her former employer, the Florida Department of Health, contended Jones had sent an email through an internal government account which she was no longer authorized to use. The message warned state workers to speak up before thousands more died in the COVID-19 pandemic. The officers arrived at Jones’s residence with a search warrant, intending to seize her electronic devices.

Jones insisted the raid was revenge for her actions back in May, when she told the world that the state wanted her to manipulate coronavirus data so that pandemic restrictions could be eased. 

"This is what happens to scientists who do their job honestly,” she said on Twitter. “This is what happens to people who speak truth to power."

Now, Jones appeared on Zoom for the latest round with her battle with Florida. This hearing was a chance at a fresh start.  

Not one to be silenced

By the time she appeared in the courtroom that day, it had been almost a year since her troubles began. Back then, in March 2020, pandemic fears were soaring along with the number of positive COVID-19 cases each day. No one was quite sure how the disease would manifest.

As a geographic information systems manager for the Florida Department of Health, Jones knew the power of data. She created a dashboard to track COVID-19 cases in the state; those numbers would be the ultimate weapon against the disease, the only evidence that would clear the state for reopening. 

Like other states, Florida’s dashboard tracked the number of new COVID-19 cases reported each day as well as the number of deaths and hospitalizations. But unlike New York or California which ordered strict restrictions early on, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican and a staunch supporter of Donald Trump, followed the president’s lead and was slow to acknowledge the scope of the spread. 

Florida reported its first two cases on March 1. Two months later, Jones sent out an email to subscribers that she had been removed as the dashboard manager. In it, she insinuated the agency, under DeSantis’s guidance, told her to change the data. She said she refused and was fired for “insubordination.”

Not one to be silenced, Jones created her own dashboard, FloridaCovidAction, to offer the data she felt the state was withholding. She designed a supplemental website to track cases in schoolchildren. She appeared on television talk shows to rail against the state health department. Progressive groups and politicians showered her with accolades for her commitment to transparency. She gained over 400,000 supporters on Twitter, who regularly expressed their gratitude.

Then, in July, she filed a whistleblower complaint against the state. 

Her detractors immediately questioned her credentials, her intentions and most of all her word. They raised Jones’s checkered past -- she had faced sexual harassment charges in 2019 after publishing an article about a former flame to a sexual assault survivor’s blog. She had been fired from Florida State University over an incident with the same man.  Her critics asked: How was she to be trusted?

Jones was now either a grifter or a hero. An enemy or a role model. A liar or a whistleblower.

Each party attempted to pour Jones into whatever mold best served their purposes, but forgotten in the political turmoil was the woman herself. She has her own values, her own goals and her own legacy to protect. She does not go quietly. 

Poor but "pretty plucky"

Jones acquired quick feet and a sharp tongue when she was only waist high.

She learned how to wiggle herself free from between a rock and a hard place, but only because she didn’t grow up with stable footing. Her parents took whatever jobs they could find, and the family moved around quite a bit. In Pennsylvania, her father worked on a dairy farm and her mom, at Burger King. In Maryland her father sold cards and hung sheetrock and her mom worked as a secretary. In Wiggins, Mississippi, where the family finally settled, her father again hung sheetrock until the housing collapse of 2008 and then became a truck driver. Her mother found a job at a casino, then at a bank and a hotel.

But it wasn’t always enough. In an essay Jones once submitted in court testimony, she described going to bed with a gurgling belly. Relatives sometimes took in the family when their rent money grew thin.

When 9-year-old Jones arrived in Wiggins, fewer than 4,000 people lived there; a quarter, under the poverty line. At her public parish school, Jones would “give herself ear infections”to avoid explaining why she couldn’t afford a field trip. Her parents fought often over money, and her father would come and go. But they never divorced, even now after 30 years of marriage.

Jones attended an underfunded high school that lacked air-conditioning, and the classrooms felt oppressive in the sweltering Southern summer. She described herself as an “unruly, intelligent and ambitious child” but she fell back on a piece of advice from her mother: “Education is the only thing that no one can ever take away from you.”

Jones held onto that, even as Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf coast, flooding her home and destroying her high school. She couldn’t attend classes for months and her family had trouble getting federal assistance. At only 16, she learned another essential lesson: the importance of having effective leaders during a crisis.

Two years later, Syracuse University gave Jones a chance to receive a higher education.  A scholarship they offered would cover the bulk of her expenses, though it still wasn’t enough. She worked 60 hours a week to pay the bills while studying journalism at the Newhouse School. 

In her sophomore year, she met the man who became the father of her first child. He would later become her husband, but Jones spent her pregnancy alone. She considered both abortion and adoption, but the second their son was born, “Earth’s axis tilted.”

She chose to study journalism because she wanted to “give a voice to the voiceless,” but just writing about things wasn’t enough anymore. She needed to create a better world for her son. 

On a whim, Jones decided to take a class called Global Environmental Change. She wasn’t a science student; she wasn’t even sure about climate change.

But the professor, Jane Read, ignited a passion for geography within Jones. In a crowded lecture hall, Jones sat in the front row, dead center, with a smile plastered on her face. She raised her hand often, even if she didn’t know the answer to a question. “Pretty plucky in a room of 75 students,” Read thought. 

Jones took every class Read taught. She had so many questions that Read couldn’t tell if her student’s brain ever stopped. Jones never struggled to find a project topic at the end of the semester, focusing mostly on disaster and emergency response. She knew, after all, what it was like to deal with a disaster without a plan. She had lived through one.

Jones’s determination impressed Read. She had a newborn at home and yet she did not allow her mothering responsibilities to interfere with her degree. Read could see Jones was the kind of woman who knew how not to be defeated in the face of hardship. 

Professor and student chatted on Facebook every so often after Jones graduated and earned her master’s degrees at Louisiana State University, Read’s alma mater, and when she began a Ph.D. program in geography at Florida State University in 2016. The two don’t speak much anymore but still, they are cut from the same cloth: women in a male-dominated field. Scientists who try to understand humans, natural systems and how they affect each other. 

Devising a dashboard

If there was one thing Jones learned in Read’s classroom, it was this: Good geographers recognize data patterns, both social and physical, and use that information to mitigate or solve problems. People have a hard time understanding data, but if you could visualize that information through a geospatial technology, it would be far more accessible.

She took a job as a geospatial analyst at the Florida Department of Health in 2018, soon rising to be a geographic information systems manager integral to tracking Hurricanes Matthew and Dorian.

But soon, a new disaster emerged.

COVID-19 cases began to rise exponentially in the first months of 2020, and Jones switched gears. She knew that for Americans to comprehend the gravity of the pandemic, they had to understand the data about the disease. Without that understanding, surely, thousands would die. That’s why she told the health agency that she wanted to create a dashboard. 

Jones designed the dashboard over one day in March. She felt an urgency to get it online, she said, as the agency had taken two full months to approve the request she’d made in January. It included six maps and tracked the number of tests done each day, the number of confirmed positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

The dashboard earned Jones praise from geographic information systems companies as well as the Florida surgeon general and Dr. Deborah Birx, who was serving on Trump’s coronavirus task force.

“That’s the kind of knowledge and power we need to put into the hands of American people so that they can see where the virus is, where the cases are, and make decisions,” Birx said on the CBS show “Face the Nation.”

For the first eight weeks, things went well. Jones trusted the data she was using and had faith that the dashboard would work well, she said in an interview with Yahoo News. But that faith quickly vanished.

She had devised a model tracking system for the coronavirus and yet, in the end, it was data that would land her in a whole heap of trouble.

Sacrificing safety

In April, when the pandemic was starting to choke America, a new study showed promise that heat and humidity would drive the coronavirus away. DeSantis hung on to every word of that report; it aligned with the governor’s desire to get the state back to its pre-COVID bustle. The state ordered Jones to collect data from each county and decide if they were cleared to reopen.

But when Jones’s numbers showed that rural counties were still very much in the red, she said her superiors didn’t like it. That was, she alleged, the first time the state asked her to manipulate the data by omitting evidence that showed Florida wasn’t ready for the administration’s goals.

A few days later, on May 4, the state began reopening. The same day, internal emails obtained by the Tampa Bay Times showed Jones objected to removing positive COVID-19 cases from the dashboard before data was published online. By the next morning, her superiors demoted her and replaced her with another manager. She continued to help out but didn’t feel right about it. She felt people were missing the whole story. Jones decided to send out an email to dashboard subscribers that warned them to “not expect the new team to continue the same level of accessibility and transparency.” Her commitment to both, she said, was the main reason she was no longer managing it. 

On May 18, the Department of Health sent an email to Jones notifying her of her termination. Jones has maintained all along that she was fired because she refused to manipulate data. But the health department said there were many other issues. Ultimately, it said, it did not have to give a reason for firing Jones. She was an employee who served “at the pleasure of the agency head and shall be subject to dismissal at the discretion of the agency head,” the termination email read. “You may, therefore, be dismissed at will.”

The state claims Jones deserved to be demoted and fired. Public records from May show that her superiors discussed how to handle some of the alleged inappropriate behavior from the month before, like Jones sharing unauthorized data or causing delays in dashboard updates.

But Jones said the public record cannot be trusted. The state, she said, provided no evidence for any of their claims; rather, they conjured up a reason for disciplinary action.

Internal emails at the department confirm that her superiors asked her to remove raw data from the dashboard after new reports showed the disease circulating in Florida as early as January. If she did, no outside party would be able to analyze the data. But Jones refused.

 “We have gained national notoriety for being the best state in the country with data transparency,” she said. “I’m not trashing all of that work and progress because he got asked a few questions by reporters.” 

Jones may seem paranoid in thinking the world was out to get her, but there were people in powerful positions who would have liked to see her fail. If Jones were telling the truth, it would mean that the Department of Health had asked her to sacrifice safety for the sake of the economy. But if Jones were lying, now with the country’s eyes on her, she would have a lot to lose. Her credibility, her career. So, DeSantis highlighted information that cast doubt on her character, knowing that it’s always harder to believe someone with a complicated past.

A whistleblower with a troubled past

Whistleblowers are either heroes or villains, depending on where one stands. Jones was a villain to DeSantis and his supporters and a hero to many of the Florida governor's detractors. But she was no saint, and DeSantis reveled in her personal mistakes. They had little to do with the COVID dashboard and everything to do with Jones’s sometimes unsavory past. 

Jones, argued DeSantis, should have been dismissed long before her termination.

Police in Tallahassee charged Jones six times during and after her stint at Florida State University. The first three –– felony robbery, trespassing and contempt of court –– occurred when Jones was in a relationship with an undergraduate student.

Jones, then a 28-year-old Ph.D. student and teaching assistant in the geography department, taught the 21-year-old student in one of her classes. He flirted with her so much that other students began to notice his innuendos, according to the essay Jones submitted to the district court

The two began an intimate relationship, though by then, Jones was no longer his instructor. 

The first time they had sex she said the student removed his condom, despite Jones’s repeated objections. They continued their sexual relationship after that, and despite Jones using a form of birth control, a routine doctor's appointment revealed that she was pregnant. Jones said that when he failed to convince her to have an abortion, he sought to destroy her through the legal process.

The student did not respond to emails or calls requesting comment about these events.

The head of the geography department said in an email that Jones received favorable reviews as both a student and professor. However, FSU dismissed Jones after a Title IX investigation into the affair.

All of the charges against Jones were dropped except for one. It concerned an article she posted about her relationship on an abuse survivor’s blog. The student said the post had explicit photos of him, and prosecutors decided to charge her with cyberstalking and sexual harassment. Jones’s personnel file indicates that the Department of Health did not consider those charges an obstacle to her job.

Still, the entire episode has served as fodder for Jones’s critics, including conservative media consultant Christina Pushaw, who argues Jones cannot be trusted. In a February article for the Human Events, a Breitbart-backed conservative news website, Pushaw wrote “Jones’s story sounds impressive. There’s just one problem: It’s not true.” 

Pushaw highlighted Jones’s arrest record and the controversy with the student and objected to the characterization of Jones as a “disease expert” and “doctor,” as some media reports erroneously claimed.

As for the raid on Jones’s home, Pushaw questioned how Jones could have framed it as violent or illegitimate; the police behaved with “restraint and professionalism” and two judges verified the legitimacy of the search warrant.

“What distinguishes ‘whistleblowers’ from ‘disgruntled ex-employees’ is credibility,” Pushaw said, “and here Jones has a problem.”

Some of Pushaw’s claims were true; Jones never completed her doctorate and does not have a degree in epidemiology. But she is a scientist who was trained to map and understand data.

When it comes to her rocky personal life, Jones admits she has made mistakes. In the end, though, perhaps what distinguishes whistleblowers from disgruntled employees is not overarching credibility. It’s whether or not they told the truth. 

Police raid her home

On that December day when law enforcement officers banged on Jones’s door in Tallahassee, she was upstairs changing. She assumed the cops had come to arrest her and told her husband to keep their two young children on the second floor.

The officers wore bullet proof vests and one even carried a sledgehammer. They waited 23 minutes for Jones to come to the door.

“Search warrant! Open the door!,” they yelled, knocking with enough strength to shake the door on its hinges. 

A warning message about COVID deaths sent out in November to the state’s health department employees had been traced back to Jones’s computer. The cops were there to raid her home.

When she finally came to the door, she saw the guns. 

“Open the f----g door!” they shouted.

“I’m trying, stop grabbing the doorknob!” she begged from the other side.  

Jones slipped out of the house, hands behind her head. The officers grabbed her and asked who else was home.

 “Call ‘em down,” they said. 

“You want the children now?” she asked, the panic evident in her voice. 

A couple of the officers walked towards the stairs. One held up a gun. “Come down the stairs! Now!” 

Jones lurched forward slightly. They grabbed her tighter.

“Do not point that gun at my children!” she said. “Why is he pointing a gun upstairs? There are children up there!”

Her face was pale, but her eyes incensed. Her husband carried her youngest child outside as her eldest followed right behind. The officers confiscated her computer, phone, hard drives and multiple flash drives.

Jones posted a video of the search for the world to see. One of those people was Ron Filipkowski, a former DeSantis judicial appointee. He was a staunch Republican for decades, twice appointed by former Gov. Rick Scott and then reappointed by DeSantis to the 12th Circuit Judicial Nominating Committee. He had seen all sides of criminal law, working as both prosecution and defense, and educated police academy students in Sarasota on how to legally conduct a raid. That experience, he believed, allowed him to “cut through the B.S.” 

Filipkowski couldn’t believe what he was seeing. In his view, Jones wasn’t a violent offender, and there was no drug bust. He saw no reason for the police to have drawn their guns. Whistleblower complaints are usually worked out in civil court. Charging Jones with hacking would make her actions a felony in state court, with harsher consequences. 

After the raid, he resigned from his position. He wanted to do something, anything in protest. A month later, after the January 6 insurrection on the nation’s Capitol, he walked away from the GOP that he had loved for so long. 

Filipkowski believed the entire mess with Jones was just an intimidation tactic by DeSantis to stop other whistleblowers from coming forward. Jones, he said, used the situation to her benefit, but he doesn’t have a big problem with that. 

“Two things can be true,” he said. “There can be questions or issues surrounding her termination, her past. But she could also be telling the truth.” 

Jailed but undeterred

In the Zoom courtroom in January, Jones waited for answers. If her legal team could convince Judge John Cooper that the search warrant didn’t show probable cause, she could get her computers back. Maybe even some of her credibility. 

Jones did not send the emergency message, said her lawyer Richard Johnson. Even if she had, it wouldn’t be a crime.  How could it be when the username and password for the messaging system were publicly available? Anyone could access it, if they so desired. And there was no message to warn users that it was a restricted platform.

“If you left your car in your driveway, with the doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition,” Cooper questioned, “would it still be illegal for somebody to come in without your permission?” 

“Why would I be giving that information?” Johnson replied. “If I tell you the keys are under the mat, am I just telling you so you’ll know, or am I telling you that so you can reach under the mat to use the key?”

The judge did not seem swayed. Jones stayed silent, chiming in only to joke about life in D.C. She was a painting of composure even as Johnson messed up and referenced the wrong statute in his argument, forcing Cooper to correct him. The only sign of nerves was the wobble of her jaw, as though she were chewing her cheeks.

The news was not great. The judge upheld the search warrant, but he said the police needed to decide whether Jones’s electronic devices offered any evidence. They could not hold them indefinitely without a charge. That was a win for Jones, no matter how small.

But days later, officers said they found evidence of downloaded contact information from the health department on Jones’s devices. It wasn’t what they were looking for, but it was enough. They put out a warrant for her arrest.

Jones drove back to Florida “ to protect [her] family from continued police violence.” She was booked at the Leon County Detention Center for one night.

She worried that something bad could happen to her while in custody. She had just sued the police, after all. But she rationalized that ”a third of Americans get arrested at some point in their lifetime.” She was just one of them. But not all get arrested during a pandemic.

With a twist of fate, Jones found out she had contracted COVID-19 upon arrival. Again, she feared she might die, this time because of the disease she’d been fighting for months. She slept so she didn’t have to remember shivering through the night with only Tylenol for her pain. She posted bail at $2,500 the next morning, but walked straight into medical isolation.

For the next few days, Jones let the fever spell run its course. She wondered, privately, if it was all worth it –– the raid, the arrest, the pain her family has gone through. But when she was well enough, she returned home to them. She recharged. They loved her, and they supported her. If she kept even one person out of harm’s way, she thought, then it was worth it. Nothing, not even jail, would keep her quiet.

A scarlet W

For as much fame as Jones has gained in the past year, losses still follow.

On the morning of April 9, she was supposed to deliver a live keynote address at the American Association of Geographers’ annual conference. She had always secretly wished that one day –– far in the future –– she’d be respected enough for the honor. It had come much sooner than she ever expected. The association plauded her work on the COVID dashboard as showcasing the vital role of geography in mitigating disasters. The honor was the culmination of everything Jones had ever worked for.

But she couldn’t celebrate with her family. She couldn’t engage in a question-and-answer session. In fact, she couldn’t participate live at all. Instead, she was forced to watch her recorded speech from inside a Maryland courtroom. 

She was there because the verbal fight with Pushaw, the conservative media consultant, had reached a fever pitch.

Jones had been excoriated online. Fake accounts popped up on Twitter that were dedicated to defaming her. Jones believed that Pushaw was behind most of the hatred, including a flurry of tweets and emails aimed at the geography association to pressure it to rethink its choice of Jones as a keynote speaker.

Pushaw said it was outlandish for Jones to assume she was behind dozens of accounts. She wasn't the only one who had a problem with Jones's history, she said, and pointed to a letter members of the Florida State geography department wrote to the AAG requesting Jones's removal as a speaker.

Either way, the staff received threats, and event sponsors saw their contact information released online. For the safety of everyone involved, Jones agreed to record her address in advance. 

Two days before her speech, she learned that Pushaw knew her home address from public records and lived nearby. She filed for an emergency order of protection, and a Maryland court granted her an interim peace order that would expire in 48 hours. If she wanted to extend it, she would have to appear in person in court with more evidence -- at the same time as the conference. 

It was a bittersweet day for Jones –– “I had to do my keynote in a courtroom to protect myself from her,” she wrote in an online newsletter. Pushaw said she has never been a threat to Jones; she just wrote an article about her that she didn't like. The Montgomery County District Court later denied Jones's peace order petition, as "the petitioner could not meet the required burden of proof." Jones plans on appealing that decision with support from her legal team.

Whistleblowing isn’t for the faint of heart. Nor is it a steppingstone to fame.

No one knows this better perhaps than lawyers Hamsa Mahendranathen and Mary Inman, who work for Constantine Cannon, the largest whistleblower law firm in the country. In the hundreds of cases that they have analyzed, they see a pattern: a disruptor who gains momentary attention but also gets a scarlet “W” emblazoned on their chest.

But Jones refuses to be sidelined. She harbors great hopes for a future in Washington and is dipping her toes into elected representation. She hints that big opportunities are coming. Still, many associate her with trouble, and the scarlet “W” persists. She receives messages daily that tell her she’s just a girl with a laptop or worse, a slutty, disgruntled employee who should never have been hired in the first place.

Constantine Cannon views whistleblowers as much more than disruptors. They are the guardians of society. They are the brave who fight for integrity in governance.

Each year, the firm nominates a class of whistleblowers, and the public votes to determine which person best represents “courage, strength, integrity, selflessness and a deep concern for public health and safety.” This year’s Whistleblower of the Year award recipient?

Rebekah Jones. 

Correction: An original version of this article included the names of Jones's husband and the Florida State student. Both have been removed to protect their identities. The original version has also been updated to reflect Pushaw's comment on her and Jones's Maryland court battle.

Ava is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.