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Florida Agents Raid Home Of Rebekah Jones, Former State Data Scientist

Rebekah Jones says Florida law enforcement agents seized electronic devices from her home in retaliation for her sharing COVID-19 data — and criticizing the state's pandemic response.
Courtesy Rebekah Jones
Rebekah Jones says Florida law enforcement agents seized electronic devices from her home in retaliation for her sharing COVID-19 data — and criticizing the state's pandemic response.

Florida law enforcement agents searched the home of former state data scientist Rebekah Jones on Monday, entering her house with weapons drawn as they carried out a warrant as part of an investigation into an unauthorized message that was sent on a state communications system.

"At 8:30 am this morning, state police came into my house and took all my hardware and tech," Jones said via Twitter. She added, "They were serving a warrant on my computer after DOH filed a complaint."

The Florida Department of Health is the agency that fired Jones in May, after she helped create the state's COVID-19 dashboard.

Jones has said she lost her job after she refused requests to manipulate data to suggest Florida was ready to ease coronavirus restrictions. A spokesperson for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at the timethat she "exhibited a repeated course of insubordination during her time with the department."

The search warrant was authorized as investigators tried to learn who sent a chat message to a planning group on an emergency alert platform, urging people to speak out publicly about Florida's coronavirus strategies.

The message stated, "it's time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead," according to member station WFSU, citing the probable cause affidavit. The message continued, "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."

Jones posted a short video of the raid online Tuesday, showing several agents entering her home, carrying pistols and at least one rifle. In the footage, Jones tells them that her husband and two children are in the house.

"Police! Come down now!" an agent shouts.

As the agents enter, one points their weapon upstairs. Jones says the agents pointed a gun at her and at her children.

It's not clear from the video whether agents pointed a gun at Jones' family members. The top of stairs are not in view.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen denies Jones' assertion, issuing a statement about the raid that states, "At no time were weapons pointed at anyone in the home."

Swearingen also says Jones initially refused to answer her door and hung up on agents who called her about the pending search.

Jones calls the raid on her home an act of retaliation for her persistent criticisms of how Florida has handled the pandemic. She accuses DeSantis of being focused more on political concerns than stopping the coronavirus.

"They took my phone and the computer I use every day to post the case numbers in Florida, and school cases for the entire country," she said via Twitter. "They took evidence of corruption at the state level. They claimed it was about a security breach. This was DeSantis. He sent the gestapo."

Swearingen says the search warrant stemmed from a complaint by the Department of Health, "that a person illegally hacked into their emergency alert system."

The court affidavit says the rogue message was sent to a state planning group, in which all users "share the same username and password." It adds that investigators were able to trace the Nov. 10 message to an IP address that is affiliated with Jones' Comcast account.

The affidavit adds that anyone who is no longer part of an agency involved in the planning group "are no longer authorized to access the multi-user group."

Jones says that despite the raid, she was not arrested or charged with a crime. But she has started a Go Fund Me page, asking for donations to pay for a new computer and "a hell of a good lawyer." She is also seeking help in finding a new job in another state.

Jones insists that Monday's search is another phase in her lingering dispute with the state, saying via Twitter, "This is what happens to scientists who do their job honestly. This is what happens to people who speak truth to power."

After being fired from her job as a geographic information system manager, Jones created her own dashboard for reporting coronavirus information called Florida COVID Action, offering data and information about testing options. When she launched the platform, a state Department of Health spokesperson defended the state's dashboard and suggested that Jones' version included unreliable data.

She is also involved in another project, the Covid Monitor, which focuses on coronavirus in schools.

Jones says the raid and the seizure of her computer and other devices won't stop her work in tracking and reporting COVID-19 data. And she urged state officials to focus on easing the pandemic's horrible effects on Florida's citizens.

"DeSantis needs to worry less about what I'm writing about, and more about the people who are sick and dying in his state," Jones told CNN's Chris Cuomo. "And doing this to me will not stop me from reporting the data."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.