Rebekah Jones: Raid part of 'purge' of state employees seen as disloyal to DeSantis
Aide: DeSantis had no prior knowledge of the raid, and learned of the search warrant along with everyone else Monday night
Rebekah Jones, the former Department of Health (DOH) data management supervisor fired for what she called her refusal to change COVID-19 data, said on national television she doesn’t believe she is the real target of a state investigation into a suspected security breach.
Instead, she said, it's part of a larger purge of DOH employees who are seen as disloyal to Gov. Ron DeSantis or won’t get behind his messaging about the current state of the pandemic in Florida.
“After speaking to my attorneys and looking over the evidence (state agents) said they have, I actually think that they’re not after me,” she told Chris Cuomo after 9:30 p.m. Monday during his Cuomo Prime Time show on CNN.
Agents with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement served a search warrant on her Tallahassee home Monday morning, brandishing handguns as they entered the house to bring out her husband and children before searching the premises.
The search warrant was signed by Circuit Judge Joshua Hawkes, appointed by DeSantis in September.
DeSantis had no prior knowledge of the raid, and learned of the search warrant along with everyone else Monday night, spokesman Fred Piccolo said in an email in response to a request for comment from the USA TODAY NETWORK–FLORIDA.
“The Governor had no involvement in the investigation or any judicial proceeding attendant to any such investigation,” Piccolo said.
Agents didn’t take her router, a networking device that forwards data over the Internet, or several laptops, but did seize the computer she uses for updating the COVID-19 dashboard she created after leaving her state job, as well as her cellular phone, and other “hardware and tech,” containing "evidence of corruption at the state level," Jones said.
Rebekah Jones raid: Read full search warrant from Florida state police
“And on my phone is every communication I’ve ever had with someone who works at the state, who has come to me in confidence and told me things that could get them fired or in trouble like this,” Jones told Cuomo.
The raid was a “very thinly veiled attempt by DeSantis to intimidate scientists and get back at me while trying to get to my sources, he’s been firing people left and right..."
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An official with the DOH Preparedness and Response office alerted the FDLE on Nov. 10 to an unauthorized use of its custom-made emergency management messaging system, according to the FDLE search warrant affidavit.
Someone gained access to the system and sent out a group text 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."
The text message was sent to 1,750 recipients before the software vendor could stop it from being transmitted further, the affidavit said.
After several weeks of investigation, FDLE agents traced the text message to an Internet Protocol, or IP, address, associated with Jones’s Comcast account, from which they obtained her street address.
“Only at that time would it have been known to be Ms. Jones’ home," Piccolo said. "Either the governor is a pre-crimes detective worthy of (a Philip K.) Dick novel or this was a standard investigation into a crime that happened to lead to Ms. Jones."
DeSantis is not involved in the investigation, nor is he directing FDLE to do anything, Piccolo added.
“He expects, and has no doubt, that Ms. Jones will and should be afforded all the rights and presumptions that this great country grants the accused,” Piccolo said.
The governor’s office is not assisting in the investigation, Piccolo said, “except to the extent that law enforcement requests information or interviews.” FDLE hasn’t asked for any interviews or information yet, he said, “but the office will fully cooperate with any investigation.”
Jones, the former geographic information science manager, was fired for insubordination in May after being reprimanded several times, state officials said.
Her paperwork doesn't state a cause for her being fired, but she claims she was terminated for refusing to manipulate health data to cast Florida in a more favorable light at the time the state wanted to reopen parts of the state’s economy.
In her whistleblower complaint, filed with the Florida Commission on Human Relations in July, Jones accused the governor of a pattern of falsifying the numbers.
Larry Walters, a Tampa-based attorney also representing Jones, told USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida the search warrant seemed like retaliation for pursuing a discrimination claim against the state and for criticizing the governor's response to COVID-19.
"The actions of Florida law enforcement captured on my client’s video depicts unnecessarily reckless and aggressive behavior in the execution of a search warrant for computers," Walters said in an email. "Our client was fully cooperative yet had guns pointed at her and her family."
The turnover of the computer information and other evidence could have been handled a lot more peacefully and safely, he said.
"We intend to thoroughly investigate the alleged basis for this search which resulted in the forced disclosure of confidential communications with our adversary in litigation," Walters said. "We also intend to pursue all lawful avenues to seek return of our client’s property and vindicate her civil rights."
Jones maintains she didn't hack the system. Other than her communications with DOH employees about, Jones said, she has not had any access to any systems of the DOH since her firing.
She also claimed she doesn’t have the computer expertise to hack into the system: “As the governor pointed out months ago, I am not that tech savvy,” she told Cuomo.
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She also doubts the investigator’s description of how he obtained the IP address and linked it to her home address. “The IP address was provided by the Department of Health … the inspector general’s office, and didn’t actually come from the investigation,” she said.
Jones told a reporter for the USA TODAY NETWORK – Florida that a series of firings and resignations in DOH, including department communications director Alberto Moscoso’s recent departure, were part of “a purge.”
“It's like a massacre. And those aren't the only people that have been fired or left,” she said.
What DOH employees relayed to her was that “they are getting rid of people they perceive to be a threat to their mission," she told a reporter.
Florida Today reporter Alessandro Sassoon contributed to this report. Contact Jeff Schweers at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.
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