The following first appeared in the Buzz newsletter, a weekly dive into the power, politics and influence shaping Florida from Political Editor Steve Contorno and the Tampa Bay Times politics team. To subscribe and receive it in your email inbox each week, click here.
The Rundown: Florida is in the national spotlight … again. The Monday morning raid of former Department of Health employee Rebekah Jones by state law enforcement is a strange twist in a months-long controversy that has at times included multiple police agencies, hacking allegations, DeSantis, a whistleblower complaint and state COVID-19 data. Jones’ footage of agents executing a warrant at her Tallahassee home went viral and she later accused DeSantis on CNN of attempting to silence her criticism of his response to the pandemic.
There’s a lot to sort out here. Let’s go back to the beginning.
Who is Rebekah Jones? Until early May, Jones worked as a data analyst in charge of maintaining the state’s popular online COVID-19 dashboard. She said she was reassigned then fired after objecting to an order to remove key data from the website. She accused the department of trying to downplay the outbreak in rural counties ahead of DeSantis’ order to reopen the state. Emails we obtained confirmed some of these details.
The state denied these accusations. But it’s worth noting that around this time, multiple news outlets were asking about missing data and the state has never adequately explained why information was suddenly removed.
DeSantis strikes back. Vice President Mike Pence visited Orlando as this saga unfolded. With Pence by his side and the cameras rolling, DeSantis blew up. He said Jones was fired for insubordination, not retribution. He then dished that Jones was the subject of criminal charges for sexual cyber harassment (which was dropped) and cyberstalking.
After leaving the department, Jones started her own competing COVID-tracking website that included metrics the state didn’t publicize, like hospital bed availability. And she continued to lob accusations that the state was manipulating data (like this), earning her an interview on CNN.
Fast forward to Nov. 10. Amid another wave a coronavirus cases, someone sent a message through the state Department of Health’s emergency communication tool, urging recipients to “speak up before another 17,000 people are dead. 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.”
Two weeks later, the state described the incident as being hacked. And a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation traced the message to Jones’ home, the agency alleged. On Monday, agents executed a warrant to search her property and seize computers.
The raid. Agents said they knocked and called Jones. She hung up and she “refused to come to the door for 20 minutes,” they said. Jones said that’s when they entered, guns drawn, and alleged they pointed the weapons at her two children. She captured the affair on video and tweeted it.
Democrats have loudly criticized the treatment as over-the-top and retaliatory. One Republican lawyer and DeSantis appointee resigned from a state board over the incident, calling the governor “reckless and irresponsible.”
”What’s the crime? The crime is hacking into an email server to tell people to tell the truth?,’' he said. “That’s not a horrible crime, if it’s a crime at all.”
Consider this. The raid was extraordinary for other reasons. Court records show whoever accessed the system simply used the same shared login used by the entire department — hardly what cybersecurity experts would consider “hacking.” Redditors found the password posted publicly.
The Department of Health could have just changed the system password and moved on. But in a sign of how politicized the Jones saga has become, state police decided it merited serving a search warrant on Jones’ house. Some have suggested that Jones herself isn’t a target, but any leakers or sources she have in the state who are working with her.
Compare Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s treatment of Jones to a different decision the department made in January. That’s when the agency decided it was a “conflict” to investigate state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis for illegally releasing a woman’s sexual harassment complaint.
Unlike the Jones case, this had an actual victim — a young woman whose lawyer said she was harmed when Patronis turned her harassment complaint into a political weapon against the state’s banking regulator. But state law enforcement, conveniently, punted that case to the Leon County State Attorney’s Office, where prosecutors said they were in no rush to finish the investigation.
Up next. Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen is scheduled to go before the state Cabinet next week. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried will undoubtedly demand some answers.