Fired Florida data scientist Rebekah Jones turns herself in, tests positive for COVID
(CNN) — The former Florida data analyst who has accused state officials of covering up the extent of the pandemic has turned herself in, days after a warrant was issued for her arrest, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) said.
Rebekah Jones has been charged with one count of offenses against users of computers, computer systems, computer networks and electronic devices, the FDLE said. She surrendered Sunday to the Leon County Detention Facility.
Jones walked out of the jail Monday afternoon after posting bail. Wearing a mask, she told reporters outside the jail she had just tested positive for COVID-19.
Jones didn’t make any other comments as she walked alongside her attorney to a vehicle.
In a series of tweets Saturday, Jones announced her intention to turn herself in to 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 tweeted.
“The Governor will not win his war on science and free speech. He will not silence those who speak out.”
Jones was fired from the Florida Department of Health in May and has repeatedly criticized Gov. Ron DeSantis’ handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
The FDLE has said it is investigating whether Jones accessed a state messaging system without authorization to call for state officials to speak out about COVID-19 deaths.
“It’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead,” said a message sent on November 10, according to the affidavit. “You know this is wrong. You don’t have to be part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it’s too late.”
Officials traced that message to an IP address linked to Jones’ house, according to a search-warrant affidavit.
On December 7, Jones’ home was raided. Jones has filed a lawsuit, alleging FDLE officials violated her First Amendment rights, deprived her of due process and unlawfully seized her computers, cell phone and storage media during a search of her home.
The suit states that IP addresses are commonly “spoofed” and references news articles that found that the username and password for the system of the message that triggered the investigation were publicly available on the health department’s website.
Governor faces mounting scrutiny
The investigation of Jones comes as DeSantis faces increasing scrutiny over his handling of the pandemic.
In April, the governor falsely claimed COVID-19 hadn’t killed anyone under age 25.
And last spring, the Florida Department of Health asked the Florida Medical Examiners Commission not to release the commission’s comprehensive list of COVID-19 deaths, the commission’s chairman told CNN.
Despite multiple surges of COVID-19 in the state, DeSantis has refused to allow municipalities enforce their own mask mandates or stricter social distancing laws. That limitation of local control has been criticized by mayors from both parties.
Some health department spokespeople were told in September not to issue statements until after the November election, and officials withheld crucial data about the spread of the virus, the newspaper reported.
Jones, who helped build the state’s coronavirus dashboard, has become one of the governor’s harshest critics, publicly alleging that DeSantis was to blame for the mounting death toll.
In May, state officials said Jones was terminated because she “exhibited a repeated course of insubordination” and modified a state data portal without input or approval from epidemiologists or her supervisors.
But Jones said she was fired after she refused to falsify state COVID-19 data.
Jones filed a whistleblower complaint in July with the Florida Commission on Human Relations.
After her firing, Jones published her own dashboard of COVID-19 stats. She said she received internal records from people who worked for the state, including what she said was proof that state officials “were lying in January (2020) about things like internal reports and notices from the CDC.”
That evidence was on “a bunch of flash drives” that officers took when they raided her house, Jones said. She said she also had documents that were legally accessed from when she was a state employee.
Legal experts said the material could theoretically be used to target Jones’ sources if they violated rules about sharing internal information.
The search warrant allowed officers to recover “any and all computer equipment” that stores or transmits data, including hard drives, devices, software, and correspondence “pertaining to the possession, receipt, origin or distribution of data involving the facilitation of computer crimes offenses.”
Employment attorneys in Florida said that state workers who leaked internal records to Jones could face disciplinary action or possibly legal trouble — although they might be able to seek protection under state whistleblower laws.