Will raid on Florida data analyst have a chilling effect?

Employment lawyers say the state’s approach to Jones was excessive, and aggressive, for a reason.
Footage of a 30-second video of a Monday police raid of the Tallahassee home of Rebekah Jones, a former Florida Department of Health employee.
Footage of a 30-second video of a Monday police raid of the Tallahassee home of Rebekah Jones, a former Florida Department of Health employee. [ Twitter ]
Published Dec. 10, 2020|Updated Feb. 16, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Florida police did something rarely seen in the life of a pending investigation this week: They released the screenshot of an agent’s cell phone to show how many times police attempted to call Rebekah Jones, the former state data analyst turned whistle blower.

The screenshot not only showed Jones’ personal cell phone number, it showed police called four times between 8:38 and 8:43 a.m. Monday as agents waited on her doorstep for more than 20 minutes before she opened the door and they entered with their guns drawn..

Making the call log public appeared to portray Jones’ reluctance to cooperate with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which wanted to seize her computers and other electronic equipment because it said it had probable cause to believe she was behind an anonymous message sent to her former colleagues at the Florida Department of Health urging them to “be a hero” and speak out about the coronavirus. Florida Department of Law Enforcement has filed no charges.

Employment lawyers say the state’s approach to Jones was excessive, and aggressive, for a reason. Someone wanted to send a message to any current or former state worker who might also have plans to speak out.

“Their motive was 100 percent intimidation,’' said Marie Mattox, a longtime Tallahassee attorney who has represented state employees in cases against government. “She has been at the pinnacle of criticism about the suppression of data by DeSantis and his administration...To have the government come down on someone as hard as they did on Rebekah will, I believe, chill other whistle blowers from coming forward.”

Jones was fired in May after accusing Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration of trying to manipulate state data to downplay the severity of the coronavirus in Florida. At the time, the governor accused her of not following the data analysis procedures established by the Department of Health.

“What she was doing is she was putting data on the portal which the scientists didn’t believe was valid data,” DeSantis said in May. “So she didn’t listen to the people who were her superiors.”

But Jones didn’t disappear after she was fired. Financed at least in part by a GoFundMe campaign, she became a frequent critic of the governor on national news shows and developed her own coronavirus database using the state’s own publicly-available data. She then expanded it to include COVID infections in schools and built a site that includes school data for other states.

As for the governor, communications director Fred Piccolo has said DeSantis “had no knowledge of the investigation, and (Florida Department of Law Enforcement) didn’t know they were investigating Rebekah Jones until they tracked the IP address,” the digital fingerprint from the anonymous message, to her home.

Jones tells her side

Jones is shaping a different narrative of the raid, and broadcasting it on national television during prime time shows.

“I don’t think they’re after me,” Jones told CNN’s Chris Cuomo during a televised interview the day of the search.

Jones said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents left her router and other electronic devices behind but took two laptops, a computer tower, two cellphones and three thumb drives — a list confirmed by the search warrant inventory obtained by the Times/Herald.

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“On my phone is every communication I’ve ever had with someone who works for the state who has come to me in confidence and told me something that could get them fired or in trouble like this,” Jones told Cuomo. “And I just want to say to all those people right now, if he doesn’t know already, DeSantis will know soon enough that you’ve been talking with me. So be careful.”

In another interview on CNN on Wednesday night, Jones issued another warning to her contacts and added a new piece of information. She had “received a tip from somebody the previous night that something was going to go down soon,’' she said. “[I] didn’t know what it was.”

Mattox and other employment lawyers agree that the state is likely looking for more information to incriminate her or go after others who have worked with her and whose information is discovered on her devices.

If they do, “they could be in trouble,’' said Tim Jansen, a Tallahassee criminal defense lawyer who has also represented whistle blowers. “It might be a crime if they’re passing on state information or protected information and, if not, they could certainly be in jeopardy of losing their job if they find insubordination.”

FDLE’s actions

Several legal experts interviewed by the Times/Herald said it was not unusual for police to release Jones’ address and cell phone number in investigative documents. They said that executing a search warrant is often a dangerous job and police always carry weapons but don’t always direct them they way they did in this instance, which Jones caught on video and posted on Twitter..

Philip Sweeting, former deputy chief of police in Boca Raton, said the video offered no evidence that agents acted inappropriately, and that having guns drawn was often standard procedure for executing search warrants but, he added, the video may not have captured everything that happened.

“If it’s someone known to be violent, they have guns drawn and are ready,’' Jansen said. “But this is a white collar case and sometimes in white collar cases these officers don’t normally get to pull their guns. When they get a chance to, they enjoy it.”

In a state with a broad whistle-blower statute, and a city where the coronavirus has already had a chilling effect on people willing to come forward with grievances about state government, the viral video Jones posted will serve as another reason for people to remain silent.

In three days, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, an agency normally reluctant to comment about any pending inquiry, issued several statements to the media, inaccurately suggesting she had “illegally hacked” the state system, and using increasingly stronger language as the story of the raid on Jones’ home unfolded on a national stage.

Instead of releasing the search warrant, Florida Department of Law Enforcement issued the more detailed search warrant affidavit that included directions to her home, the photo of her house, and then released the screen shot of the agent’s phone calls to show Jones ignored them.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,’' said Rick Johnson, a veteran employment lawyer who is representing Jones in her whistle blower case before the Florida Commission on Human Relations.

“They wanted her equipment, and the confidential information she’s gathered, and they wanted to make an example of her and make sure nobody else does this.’'

The public release of her home address and cell phone number prompted Jones’ to hire a private protective service, she told the Times/Herald.

Stephen Dobson, a Tallahassee criminal lawyer hired by Jones this week, said that agents demanded her 11-year-old son tell them the password to a computer.

“It’s just a terrible situation,’' he said. “I was with FDLE for over 15 years and I couldn’t have imagined FDLE agents behaving like that. It’s like using a sledgehammer to hit a gnat. They could have accomplished all of this by issuing a subpoena to her.”

‘Privileged information’ compromised?

In its warrant, the state said the search of Jones’ home was necessary because investigators had probable cause to believe she was responsible for sending an unauthorized message to the Department of Health’s messaging system on Nov. 10.

Johnson said at least five former employees have left or have been fired from the Florida Department of Health and Agency for Health Care Administration and have supplied Jones with damaging information about the state’s coronavirus response.

Jones said that three thumb drives the state confiscated when they searched her home contained information from some of her former colleagues about data suppression within the administration, that she promised to keep confidential.

“That is privileged information,” Johnson said, adding that they will ask FDLE to have a third party review and exclude such information from the investigative files.

If the state refuses, “we may have to go to court,’' Dobson said. “I would hope they realize the overreach they’ve conducted and they would step back.”

While the lawyers each said it was unusual for the state not to release the search warrant while it released the agent’s affidavit detailing the reason for the warrant, Jansen suggested it may have been because Florida Department of Law Enforcement knew this was going to be a high-profile case.

“If they knew this was going to be controversial and high profile, they may have decided to show what the probable cause was and avoid being accused of being retaliatory,’' he said.

Mattox said the sweep was “as broad as it is to find something to impute her character and cast doubt on what she has reported.”

Dobson said Jones has “emphatically stated that she didn’t do it,’' and offers a window into what her defense will be.

“Even if she did, it’s somebody saying: ‘Tell the truth,’ " he said. “Wouldn’t you think more people in government would say that?”

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Marie Mattox, a longtime Tallahassee attorney who has represented state employees in cases against government.)