Florida police raided the home of a former state coronavirus data scientist on Monday, escalating a feud between the state government and a data expert who has accused officials of trying to cover up the extent of the pandemic.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement executed a search warrant Monday morning at the home of data scientist Rebekah Jones, who was fired by the state Department of Health in May. The agency is investigating whether Jones accessed a state government messaging system without authorization to urge employees to speak out about coronavirus deaths, according to an affidavit by an agent working on the case.
Jones told CNN that she hadn’t improperly accessed any state messaging system and that she lost access to her government computer accounts after she was removed from her position.
About 10 officers with guns drawn showed up to her Tallahassee home around 8:30 a.m., Jones said. A video taken from a camera in her house, which she posted on social media, showed an officer pointing a gun up a stairwell as Jones told him her two children were upstairs. Jones said that the officer was pointing his gun at her 2-year-old daughter, 11-year-old son and her husband, who she said were in the stairwell, although the video doesn’t make that clear.
Officers also “pointed a gun six inches from my face” and took all of her computers, her phone and several hard drives and thumb drives, Jones said.
Gretl Plessinger, a spokesperson for the law enforcement department, said that agents knocked on Jones’ door and called her “in an attempt to minimize disruption to the family.” Jones refused to come to the door for 20 minutes and hung up on the agents, and Jones’ family was upstairs when agents did enter the house, Plessinger said. She didn’t respond to questions about why the officers drew guns.
“At no time were weapons pointed at anyone in the home,” Rick Swearingen, the department’s commissioner, added in another statement.
According to the affidavit by an investigator with the department, an unauthorized individual illegally accessed a state government emergency management system to send a group text message to government officials last month urging them to speak out about the coronavirus crisis.
“It’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead,” the message said, 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 the message, which was sent on the afternoon of November 10 to about 1,750 recipients, to an IP address connected to Jones’ house, the investigator wrote in the affidavit.
Jones told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Monday night that she didn’t send the message.
“I’m not a hacker,” Jones said. She added that the language in the message that authorities said was sent was “not the way I talk,” and contained errors she would not make.
“The number of deaths that the person used wasn’t even right,” Jones said. “They were actually under by about 430 deaths. I would never round down 430 deaths.”
Among the devices taken by officers were flash drives that Jones told CNN contained “proof that (state officials) were lying in January about things like internal reports and notices from the CDC,” as well as “evidence of illegal activities by the state.” She said that she accessed those reports legally and some had been sent to her by other people after she left the state government.
Jones said she believed the raid on her home was orchestrated by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who she’s publicly accused of mishandling the pandemic.
“This is what happens when you challenge powerful and corrupt people,” Jones said. “If he thinks this is going to scare me into silence, he’s wrong.”
DeSantis spokesperson Fred Piccolo told CNN that “the governor’s office had no involvement, no knowledge, no nothing, of this investigation.” He added that the law enforcement department launched an investigation into the message before anyone knew about Jones’ alleged involvement. The health department referred a request for comment to the law enforcement department.
Jones, who helped build the state’s online coronavirus data dashboard, was fired in May, in what she argued was retaliation for her refusal to fudge the numbers and minimize the scale of the outbreak. She has publicly alleged that a superior at the department asked her to manipulate the state’s data to make it appear Florida was closer to meeting its reopening targets than it actually was.
But state officials have defended her dismissal.
The health department said in May that Jones was removed because she had “exhibited a repeated course of insubordination,” making “unilateral decisions to modify the Department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors.”
And DeSantis said at the time that Jones’ removal from her position was a “nonissue.”
Jones filed a whistleblower complaint against the health department in July, asking to be reinstated to her job with back pay. She also launched her own online dashboard of Florida coronavirus data — a website that ran off one of the computers officers seized Monday, she said.
Jones was previously charged with stalking last year after allegedly posting explicit photos of an ex-boyfriend online, a criminal misdemeanor case that is still pending. She told CNN the case involved a blog post she posted in an online group for women who had been in abusive relationships. On Sunday, a defense attorney for Jones filed a motion to withdraw from the case because he learned “an immediate family member is involved in an active investigation” of Jones, though he did not share any details on that investigation.
When DeSantis discussed Jones’ firing in May, he referenced the alleged stalking case, saying “she should have been dismissed long before.”