TALLAHASSEE — The raid by state police of the Tallahassee home of Florida data analyst Rebekah Jones has helped her raise more than $200,000 in two days in a new GoFundMe account and revived her national celebrity.
Jones, who was fired from her role running the COVID dashboard at the Florida Department of Health in May after accusing Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration of trying to manipulate state data to downplay the severity of the coronavirus, has spent much of the week appearing on national cable shows and talking with her lawyers, which now includes Tallahassee criminal defense lawyer Stephen Dobson.
Since May, Jones has organized two fundraisers on GoFundMe and raised nearly $500,000 in donations, fueled by a Twitter account with more than 340,000 followers, including former Star Trek legend George Takei.
“Rebekah Jones was fired for refusing to manipulate COVID-19 data for the state of FL,’' Takei wrote on Twitter late Monday to his 3.2 million followers. “She began publishing her own dashboard. Then they raided her home. To support her work and to give the finger to DeSantis and his gestapo, donate to her project here,’' and included the link.
Police said they were investigating whether Jones had unauthorized access to a state emergency messaging system and sent a message to her former colleagues urging them to “be a hero” and speak out about the coronavirus.
Florida officials have denied her claims that they were suppressing data and accused her of insubordination and failing to consult with agency epidemiologists. But since her firing, she’s earned a national reputation as DeSantis’ critic, creating her own dashboard using the state’s coronavirus statistics.
Jones maintains she did not gain illegal entry into a state emergency system as alleged by Florida law enforcement.
She admitted that she had access to the system when she was a Department of Health employee, but said she has not accessed it since she was fired in May. And, she says she did not send the Nov. 10 message that urged employees to “speak up” about COVID-19 deaths.
Investigators claim they have a trail
Though state investigators say the IP address — essentially a digital fingerprint — that was used to send the unauthorized message led them to Jones’ Tallahassee home. Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said investigators subpoenaed Comcast to conclude it was Jones’ IP address.
Jones has noted in her fundraising pages that the money is meant to help her pay for computer hardware, bills, attorney fees or, in the case that she is charged and imprisoned, financial help for her family.
“The money is just rolling in,’' said Rick Johnson, one of her lawyers. “I’ve got people emailing me offering to donate big sums of money and buy her computers. I can’t go through my Facebook feed without seeing 10 long threads.”
Jones’ most recent fundraiser was created on Tuesday, a day after law enforcement agents raided her home. As of Wednesday evening, she had raised $201,645 from more than 5,000 donors. Her fundraising goal is $1 million, and contributions range from $5 to $10,000.
In an interview Wednesday, Jones said she set a $1 million fundraising goal because she is facing hefty legal fees, including $50,000 to retain Dobson.
She said Dobson told her legal proceedings could “drag on for years” and she said the money aims to cover the costs of attorney fees, a potential bail bond if she ends up facing charges, as well as other costs.
“If the governor manages to invent something to lock me away, my family will need help,” Jones wrote Tuesday on the fundraising page.
Jones said the money raised in that account will also go toward a new computer. A search warrant inventory obtained by the Times/Herald on Wednesday shows that police confiscated two laptops, two smart phones, three thumb drives, two SD cards, and an HP tower when they searched her home.
More than one account
Jones has also raised $249,441 through a separate GoFundMe account that was created in late May. She said the money raised in that account was set up to help her pay her bills after being fired for “refusing to manipulate COVID-19 data for the Florida plan to prematurely reopen the state.”
“We need to un-mix our money pots to make sure all rules are properly followed, all taxes properly paid, etc, etc.,” Jones noted in the May fundraiser.
In addition to fundraisers, Jones is accepting checks from supporters. She asks them to mail the checks to a post office box in Tallahassee that doubles as the mailing address for her company, Florida COVID Action LLC. The company was created in July, and lists both her and her husband, Jacob Romer, as the lone officers. It is impossible to track how much money she has received from checks.
The company’s website says it is paid “entirely by crowd-sourcing from the public.”
“Your support allows us to purchase the hardware, software and services needed to keep our site up and going, and pay our chief founder for her 12-hour days of work, every day of the week,” the website says.
Cybersecurity experts told the Times/Herald that the state’s messaging platform featured lax security measures — with employees all using the same username and password to gain access — that a breach was almost certain to happen.
Still, unauthorized access — even with an old password — could potentially be charged as a felony, said Stewart Baker, former general counsel for the National Security Agency.
Johnson, Jones’ attorney, said Jones has not been charged with any crime, and Dobson is working to protect her confidential conversations with her attorneys and former colleagues from being used by the state.
He said the lax security will make it difficult for the state to suggest it was a breach.
“She could have gotten in if she wanted to,’' he said. “Because once you have access you never lose it. So they can’t even fault her because with their permission she had access even after she left.”
The Department of Health has not responded to questions on how often passwords are changed to access the system. Jones said the password to access the multi-platform system is changed every month and that it “would be written on a whiteboard.”
Wasserman Schultz wants investigation
Meanwhile, Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said she wants Congress to investigate the claims of data cover-up and what she called DeSantis’ “abuse of power” in his treatment of Jones.
“Gov. DeSantis’ mishandling of the coronavirus in Florida has made him a global laughingstock and has caused so much needless suffering and death in our state,’' Wasserman Schultz wrote in a statement. “Now, beyond just deadly incompetence, it appears that he has chosen to abuse Florida’s law enforcement and judicial systems to persecute Rebekah Jones, a scientist who dared to critique his oft-maligned and suspect COVID-19 data.”
She added that, “given the timid complicity and lack of oversight from the Republican-controlled Legislature, the governor’s abuse of power must be investigated immediately by Florida’s relevant inspectors general.”
A spokesperson for Wasserman Schultz said she is exploring various federal-level investigative options, such as agencies whose inspectors general oversee state COVID funds or congressional committees that provide oversight.
“Our state is in a public health emergency,’' Wasserman Schultz said. “And rather than use his executive power to protect Floridians, DeSantis abuses it to attack scientists who dare to sound the alarm about Florida’s inept, dangerous response and apparent manipulation of data. That is not leadership; it is autocratic repression.”