On December 7, 2020, scientist and former Florida Department of Health employee Rebekah Jones posted a disturbing video on her Twitter feed. Law enforcement officials are seen ushering her outside and demanding her husband come downstairs, while Jones’ voice can be heard from outside: “Do not point that gun at my children!”
In the tweet, Jones writes that “state police came into my house and took all my hardware and tech.” In a series of follow-up tweets, she writes that the authorities “took my phone and the computer I use every day to post the case numbers in Florida, and school cases for the entire country. They took evidence of corruption at the state level.”
Most recently, Jones was arrested and “charged with ‘one count of offenses against users of computers, computer systems, computer networks and electronic devices,’” according to an article from CBS Miami. She surrendered herself to Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) on the night of January 17, and on January 18, Jones was released on a $2,500 bond, according to a Chicago Tribune article.
How does a scientist’s work lead to her home being raided by state police and an arrest? This article delves into the progression of Jones’ involvement with law enforcement that stemmed from her work on documenting the spread of COVID-19.
Background: The COVID-19 Dashboard
Jones worked as Geographic Information Systems manager for the Florida Department of Health (DOH) and during the COVID-19 pandemic, she was responsible for creating Florida’s COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard. In a June 2020 interview, Jones stated that she started asking the DOH about building a COVID-19 data dashboard in January of 2020 but was refuted for a couple of months until she was approved to begin work on the project. She told Florida Today that she “single-handedly created two applications in two languages, four dashboards, six unique maps with layers of data functionality for 32 variables covering a half a million lines of data.” The objective “was to create a way for Floridians and researchers to see what the COVID-19 situation was in real time.”
However, Jones was reassigned and then fired from her position on May 5, 2020: she claimed that the decision was because she refused to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen,” according to the May 19 Florida Today article. In a May 21 CBS News article, Florida governor Ron DeSantis dismissed Jones’ expertise and work on the portal and named insubordination as one of the reasons for her firing. He stated that she is “not a data scientist” and instead “somebody that’s got a degree in journalism, communication and geography” who is “not involved in collating any data.” Gov. DeSantis also refuted the statements that Jones was the main creator of the portal and claimed that she was uploading data to the portal that “scientists didn’t believe was valid data.”
On July 17, 2020, Jones filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the DOH, alleging that she had been fired in an act of retaliation for refusing to change the COVID-19 data, according to an article in The Palm Beach Post. The lawsuit highlights Gov. Ron DeSantis’ role in allegedly influencing the COVID-19 numbers: “These efforts to falsify the numbers are a pattern and practice in Florida government that goes on to this day,” Jones’ attorney Rick Johnson said in a statement. Johnson alleged that Gov. DeSantis “has routinely given false numbers to the press,” according to The Palm Beach Post.
Jones filed the complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations and “asked to be returned to her job with back pay and other compensation.” In the complaint, she alleges that “her superiors at the Health Department asked her in late April to falsify statistics, such as what percentage of coronavirus tests showed positive results,” according to the article. Jones alleged that Gov. DeSantis “wanted the state’s public-facing website to show that the percentage of positive tests over two weeks were below 10 percent even if the numbers were higher,” the article states.
After being fired, Jones created her own COVID-19 dashboard called Florida COVID Action, which houses data on COVID-19 cases including local, hospital, and school data, with various formats for users to display said data.
Jones’ story doesn’t end with a whistleblower complaint. On December 7, 2020, the video posted on Twitter of state police raiding her house made the rounds on social media and news sites. She wrote in a series of tweets accompanying the video that the raid occurred at 8:30am and that the police were “serving a warrant on my computer after DOH filed a complaint.” Jones wrote that the officers “claimed it was a security breach. This was DeSantis. He sent the gestapo.”
“This is what happens to scientists who do their job honestly,” Jones wrote in a follow-up tweet. “This is what happens to people who speak truth to power. I tell them my husband and my two children are upstairs…and THEN one of them draws his gun. On my children. This is Desantis’ Florida.”
The FDLE “was issuing a warrant to Jones” and justified taking her electronic devices “as part of a computer hacking investigation,” according to a December 10, 2020 article from the Palm Beach Post. FDLE “says someone gained access to the state’s emergency management system and sent a text message to 1,750 recipients saying ‘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.’”
Debate surged back and forth in the aftermath of the raid: Jones maintained that the force used was unnecessarily violent, while Commissioner Richard Swearingen said in a FDLE statement that bodycam footage of the raid released later showed that the officers “exercised extreme patience,” according to the December 10 article. The footage showed the officers at Jones’ door trying to get her to answer her phone and then knocks at the door before they entered her home. Gov. DeSantis said at a symposium that what occurred at Jones’ house was “not a raid” and that Jones “has issues.”
On December 21, 2020, Jones filed a lawsuit against Commissioner Swearingen and the FDLE, alleging that the raid was further retaliation for her refusal to alter the COVID-19 data. “The search and seizure lacked probable cause,” the complaint states.
Jones’ Surrender and Arrest
The first month of the new year has proven eventful for Jones, too. On January 16, 2021, she posted a series of tweets that “FDLE found no evidence” of the mass message DOH instructing them to “speak out.” Jones wrote that “the entire basis for the raid on my home in Dec. The warrant was based on a lie.”
“However, police did find documents I received/downloaded from sources in the state, or something of that nature…” Jones continued. She wrote that it’s still unclear what the illegal material that she allegedly possessed is specifically, “but an agent confirmed it has nothing to do with the subject of the warrant.” Jones stated in the tweets that Florida issued a warrant for her arrest, and then announced that she would turn herself in to the authorities.
“To protect my family from continued police violence, and to show that I’m ready to fight whatever they throw at me, I’m turning myself into police in Florida Sunday night,” Jones wrote. “The Governor will not win his war on science and free speech. He will not silence those who speak out.”
On January 17, a day after her tweet announcing her surrender, Jones tweeted: “Censored by the state of Florida until further notice. #LetHerSpeak.” DFLE said in the CBS Miami article that the evidence recovered in the December 7 raid “shows that Jones illegally accessed the system sending a message to approximately 1,750 people and downloaded confidential FDOH data and saved it to her devices.”
Finally, on January 18, 2021, Jones was released on bond from the Leon County detention facility: “as conditions for her release, she is not allowed to access state computer systems or use any of the information she allegedly downloaded,” the Chicago Tribune article states. To complicate matters, Jones told reporters on her way out of the detention center that she had contracted COVID-19 in the jail, according to the article. Keeping her followers and the world updated, she tweeted on January 19, 2021 that “COVID is not a joke. I’ve never been so sick in my life. I’m isolating until I can go back home to my family.” A day later, she tweeted: “Heading home.”
Jones has begun to engage with COVID-19 data content on social media again, retweeting an Orlando Sentinel article about the virus numbers in Florida. Time will tell if either her whistleblower lawsuit or December 7, 2020 raid lawsuit will come to fruition, or if the state of Florida will take any more actions against her.
“This case raises serious issues,” comments Stephen M. Kohn, qui tam attorney at whistleblower law firm Kohn, Kohn and Colapinto. “State employees have whistleblower rights under the U.S. Constitution. Targeting her for prosecution based on her whistleblowing would constitute a violation of law.”