MIAMI– The complex story of how a Florida information researcher responsible for managing the state’s coronavirus numbers wound up with state cops representatives brandishing weapons in her house today started seven long months ago, when the researcher, Rebekah D. Jones, was gotten rid of from her post at the Florida Department of Health.
Jones had helped build the statistics control panel demonstrating how the infection was quickly spreading out in a state that had actually been reluctant to mandate broad limitations.
Two months in, Jones was sidelined and after that fired for insubordination, a dispute that she stated came to a head when she refused to manipulate information to reveal that rural counties were ready to resume from coronavirus lockdowns. The specter of possible censorship by the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican allied with President Donald Trump, blew up into the mad pandemic news cycle, and Jones’ defiance came to symbolize the growing questions over Florida’s handling of the pandemic.
The arrival of state agents at her home in Tallahassee on Monday to execute a search warrant in a criminal investigation marked a brand-new, dramatic chapter in Jones’ saga, which at its core has constantly returned to the exact same fundamental concern: Can Floridians, who are now in the middle of another alarming rise in coronavirus infections and deaths, trust the state’s data?
” This isn’t actually unexpected,” she said of this week’s raid.
Jones’ firing in May became a nationwide flash point as DeSantis touted Florida’s early success in fighting the virus– a success lap that ended up being premature, given that infections and deaths later rose over the summertime, and are rising again DeSantis cast Jones as an unhappy ex-employee who is not an epidemiologist and whose claims about a lack of information transparency were unproven.
The tiff with the governor turned Jones, 31, into a cause célèbre. By June, she had constructed her own dashboard to rival the state’s, moneyed in part by contributions from hundreds of thousands of newfound followers on social networks.
Jones has actually invested months publicly advising health department employees to knock what she states has actually been the control and obfuscation of infection information to make Florida look better off than it truly is. In July, she submitted a formal whistleblower grievance.
However questions remain about why she was fired.
” Our data is available,” DeSantis said when Jones was fired. “Our data is transparent. In reality, Dr. Birx has actually talked several times about how Florida has the outright finest information,” he included, describing Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the head of the White Home’s coronavirus reaction, who had actually applauded the state dashboard when Jones was overseeing it.
” So any insinuation otherwise is simply typical partisan narrative attempting to be spun,” DeSantis concluded.
The new dashboard Jones established surfaces some information about virus cases that had been buried deep in PDF files on the state site and typically reveals a greater variety of cases than the number reported by the state. It likewise consists of info from other firms, such as hospitalization rates from the Agency for Healthcare Administration that are not on the state control panel.
But hers has stayed a primarily one-woman operation. Though numerous of her previous co-workers have just recently left the department, they have not spoken openly about why they quit working there, nor have they joined Jones’ cause.
The story took an unexpected brand-new turn on Monday early morning, when representatives from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement appeared at the door of Jones’ town home.
The very first agent stepped in and bought Jones’ spouse to come downstairs.
” He just pointed a weapon at my kids!” Jones yelled.
The agents had concerned serve a search warrant for Jones’ computers and other electronics. Jones published a 31- second video clip of the agents’ arrival to Twitter on Monday afternoon, producing new outrage versus DeSantis, who in the eyes of her advocates has actually continued to attempt to minimize the virus.
The search belonged to a criminal examination into unauthorized messages sent last month to a group of health department employees utilizing an internal emergency alert system.
” It’s time to speak up prior to another 17,000 individuals are dead,” read the messages– around 1,750 of them– sent out on Nov.10 “You know this is wrong. You do not have to belong to this. Be a hero. Speak up before it’s far too late.”
According to an affidavit supporting the search of the town house, detectives traced the messages to Jones’ Internet Protocol address, an unique number series appointed to each computer connected to the web.
She denied having anything to do with the messages. Florida had reported 17,460 coronavirus deaths at the time, and she stated she would never have actually rounded that number down.
According to the affidavit, the users on the emergency situation alert group account shared the same username and password, which cybersecurity experts stated left the system susceptible to a breach that could be hard to trace.
” That’s book bad security practice, and this is an example of why– it’s cumbersome to withdraw access and tough to attribute actions to the accountable people,” stated J. Alex Halderman, a computer science and engineering professor at the University of Michigan.
Stephen S. Dobson III, Jones’ criminal defense attorney, stated the password to the system was composed on at least 3 boards at the Department of Health. He recommended that Jones’ IP address was “spoofed,” or impersonated by somebody else.
” And it is simply total overreach for FDLE to come in with weapons out, pointing weapons at individuals,” he stated.
Within the seized electronic devices, which included computer systems, cellular phones and thumb drives, was information from contacts inside the health department to whom Jones had assured confidentiality, she stated.
The Department of Law Enforcement denied that agents pointed their weapons at anyone and launched body video camera footage on Thursday demonstrating how agents consistently knocked on Jones’ door and called her cellular phone to announce the search warrant. They doubted initially if nobody was house and then, after seeing people inside, whether they would need to break the door to go into. Jones came to the door about 23 minutes after the agents showed up, they said. (Jones said it was unclear from the start whether they had a search warrant.)
” Agents paid for Ms. Jones ample time to come to the door and fix this matter in a civil and professional manner,” Commissioner Richard L. Swearingen of the Department of Law Enforcement said in a declaration.
A spokesperson for DeSantis said the governor had no knowledge of the investigation up until Jones advertised the raid.
Florida releases a fair bit of coronavirus data, but DeSantis and his administration have actually also added to the perception that the state has not been totally transparent.
Early on, state companies refused to release details about the number of coronavirus hospitalizations and cases in long-term care centers, and only provided it after news companies threatened litigation.
County health administrators have actually been restricted in what they are allowed to state. The state cosmetic surgeon general has actually made couple of public appearances because he acknowledged in April that social distancing and other procedures would most likely have to be in place until the advent of a vaccine, for “most likely a year, if not longer.”
But Jones has not been generally accepted as a whistleblower. Some critics have dismissed her absence of public health training. Others have actually been made uneasy by the attention she has looked for– sometimes tagging late-night host Stephen Colbert, for instance, in her Twitter posts. (She says it is a gag to bring levity to her dark social networks feed.)
Her dashboard shows a greater total number of cases than the state’s authorities records because it includes the variety of favorable antibody tests, something the Department of Health and outdoors epidemiologists do not suggest. Jones has actually reacted defensively to a few of their criticism on Twitter.
The search warrant served today did not represent Jones’ first brush with the law. She dealt with a variety of criminal charges in Florida, including criminal mischief and infraction of a domestic violence injunction, all involving a relationship with one of her trainees when she was a graduate assistant at Florida State University. None of them led to a conviction, however in 2015, Tallahassee district attorneys charged Jones with cyberstalking the man.
Her attorney composed in a court filing today that Jones had consented to a plea handle that case, however prosecutors rescinded it shortly prior to Monday’s raid.
At the state health department, Jones was making a wage of $47,999
Today, she opened a new GoFundMe account, this time to fund her legal defense. Her video of the raid has been shared more than 137,000 times, including by actors, researchers and members of Congress.
The fundraising appeal rapidly exceeded her initial $150,000 goal. She raised her target to $1 million, then scaled it back to $500,000, stating she would require the cash for bail, if she were jailed, and to look after her family.
” It will also go to finding a new place to live outside of Florida so I can continue to do this crucial connect of Ron DeSantis’ administration,” she stated in a text. “I can do this work from anywhere.”
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