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Rebekah Jones, former state COVID-19 data manager, sues FDLE over raid on her home

She claims it was a 'sham' meant to punish her.

Jeffrey Schweers
Capital Bureau

Former Department of Health data manager Rebekah Jones has filed a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, saying the Dec. 7 morning raid on her house was a "sham" to retaliate against her for not altering COVID-19 data.

Jones was fired in May and soon launched her own online data dashboard. Gov. Ron DeSantis said her firing was because she disobeyed superiors; she said it was because she wouldn't alter data to cast Florida in a more favorable light to justify the governor's plans to reopen the state's economy.

In the lawsuit filed Sunday night against FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen, the department and several agents in Leon County Circuit Civil Court, Jones claims her constitutional rights were violated, including against unlawful search and seizure. She is seeking in excess of $100,000, according to the lawsuit's cover sheet.

She also claims she was unnecessarily roughed up.

"We are trying to achieve some kind of redress," said Rick Johnson, the lead attorney in both the civil suit and a separate whistleblower case. "This is still America. This is the kind of thing that happens in tinhorn dictatorships in third world countries."

Exclusive:Data scientist talks data manipulation, raid on her home

Swearingen has defended the actions of the agents he said were "vilified" by the media. He blamed Jones for any risk of danger to herself or her family. He reiterated those comments in a statement released later Monday.

As I have said before, I am proud of the professionalism shown by our FDLE agents as they served a legal search warrant on the residence of Rebekah Jones. Our criminal investigation continues, and while I have not seen this lawsuit, I believe the facts will come out in court,” Swearingen said.

The Florida Channel:  Press availability with FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen

FDLE agents accompanied by Tallahassee Police officers arrived at 7:30 a.m. Dec. 7 to serve a search warrant on Jones's home in connection with an investigation of a security breach of a state Health Department emergency communication network.

The FDLE said it took more than 20 minutes for Jones to open the door after they began knocking. Her lawyer, Johnson, said she was still in bed when the agents started knocking, and had to get dressed, wake up her children and call her attorney.

"She thought she was going to be arrested," Johnson said. The video shows that shortly after they said they had a warrant, Jones opened the door. The lawsuit said she opened the door 39 seconds after they first said they had a warrant.

"If they are pounding on the door without mentioning a warrant of any kind to arrest or search, a citizen doesn't have to open the door to police," Johnson said.

According to the state, an unauthorized user snuck onto the network and sent out a text message to 1,750 recipients that 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."

What's known as the "ESF-8" account is the state's emergency support function for public health and medical services and is used by people from several agencies, including Health and Emergency Management.

Jones, who has not been charged with a crime, denies she hacked into the account, which had its user name and password posted on a public website until state officials took it down four days after the raid.

Her lawyers were unable to get DeSantis, DOH, nor FDLE to produce any rule, policy or classification that made this emergency alert system restricted anyway, the complaint says. They doubt there would have been a crime anyway, because DOH basically gave an open invitation to anyone to access it.

"You don’t get sued for trespassing when you walk into Publix, and you don’t need to knock or ask permission when you enter," Johnson said. "That’s the gist of what this is like."

As a result, they said the search warrant was obtained in bad faith.

Additionally, Johnson said, there is no explanation or detail of the "investigative resources" the FDLE agent who applied for the search warrant mentioned in his affidavit used to obtain Jones's IP address or that it could be easily spoofed. The suit said he ignored the body of law and scientific opinion finding an IP address insufficient on its own to justify a search warrant.

"FDLE, seeking to ingratiate itself to DeSantis, sought to silence Plaintiff's online speech by confiscating her computer and to discover her confidential sources, and other information by seizing her cell phone," the suit says.

A video camera set up by Jones and pointed at the front door shows agents entering the house with sidearms unholstered and drawn. An agent points his gun up the stairs as he calls for Jones's husband and two children to come down.

"They entered her home with guns drawn, terrorizing her family," the complaint says. "They were there to execute a search warrant for her electronic devices; however the basis of the warrant was a sham to punish plaintiff for Plaintiff's protected speech."

Tallahassee lawyer Stephen S. Dobson, who also represents Jones and will be her criminal defense lawyer if charged, says he sent a letter to the FDLE, telling them the files the agency took from her are privileged attorney-client communications and work product.

Dobson, who spent 15 years with the state law enforcement agency, said he was disappointed by what he saw.

"This is, if anything, you're looking for a computer and they came in with guns drawn and pointing up the stairs and at her children," Dobson said. "It's really overreach by the FDLE."

Read the complaint:See the lawsuit filed by Rebekah Jones against the FDLE

Videos of body camera footage released by the FDLE shows a Tallahassee police officer at Jones's door with a sledgehammer in hand, and another law enforcement officer with his gun pointed at the door.

It also shows officers grabbing Jones, bringing her onto the front stoop and frisking her. In the lawsuit, she accused the anonymous officer of committing a battery on her "by repeatedly running his hands up and down her ribs and by gripping and holding her sides."

Jones, the architect of the state's COVID-19 dashboard that was praised by White House coronavirus task force physician Dr. Deborah Birx, was fired in May. Two months later she filed a whistleblower complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations, alleging the governor retaliated against her for refusing to manipulate data.

Rebekah Jones during a live video interview with USA TODAY NETWORK—FLORIDA.

Her firing made Jones a social media celebrity. She set up her own COVID-19 dashboard and began reporting data from the state.

One difference is that, unlike the state, Jones includes people who received positive results from PCR, antigen and antibody testing in her daily report of those infected with the disease. The state's daily numbers include people who received positive results for PCR and antigen tests.

Jones's dashboard shows about 95,000 more people who have contracted the virus since the pandemic began than the state's dashboard shows. Jones also includes non-residents in her death toll, which comes out to 293 more than the state's reported death toll of Florida residents only.

Newspapers, including the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and The Palm Beach Post, have reported a pattern of data manipulation and suppression by the governor and the Department of Health.

While not named as a defendant, DeSantis is cast several times throughout the lawsuit as Jones's nemesis — accused of having a hand in her firing, and suggesting that he had some influence over the investigation against her. He has denied a role in either.

The suit points out that FDLE commissioners, while appointed by the entire Cabinet, can be singlehandledly fired by a governor, as was the case when Gov. Rick Scott removed Gerald Bailey as commissioner.

"DeSantis has been openly furious about Plaintiff's work because it exposes the ongoing falsification, suppression, and misleading that are salient features of the state's data reporting about COVID-19," the suit says. "He has not missed any opportunity to heap vilification and obloquy on Plaintiff in the public media."

Background coverage

► Rebekah Jones raid and computer seizure: Read full search warrant from state police

► Fired COVID data scientist talks data manipulation, raid on her home

► Rebekah was fired from the Florida Dept. of Health. So she built a new COVID dashboard

► 'It's a scary time': Researchers, academics react to state agents raiding home of Rebekah Jones

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Contact Jeff Schweers at jschweers@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.

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