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DeSantis defends FDLE treatment of COVID-19 whistleblower

Rebekah Jones, a former Florida Department of Health data analyst, could still be charged with breach of Florida’s emergency messaging system, the governor said Friday.
Gov. Ron DeSantis introduces First Lady Casey DeSantis during a roundtable discussion regarding mental health at the downtown Tampa Firefighter Museum on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. Gov. DeSantis announced plans to allocate funds from the CARES Act to state mental health services.
Gov. Ron DeSantis introduces First Lady Casey DeSantis during a roundtable discussion regarding mental health at the downtown Tampa Firefighter Museum on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. Gov. DeSantis announced plans to allocate funds from the CARES Act to state mental health services. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 11, 2020
Updated Dec. 11, 2020

TAMPA — Rebekah Jones, a former Florida Department of Health data analyst who has been running an alternative website to the state’s coronavirus dashboard, could still end up being arrested, said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a testy news conference Friday.

Jones is suspected of sending an unauthorized message to her former colleagues on the state’s emergency operations platform, according to a warrant obtained by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to search her computer and smartphone.

She said she didn’t send the message nor was she involved in the breach. Video footage taken by Jones of Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers entering her home Monday with their guns drawn has gone viral. Jones later accused DeSantis on CNN of attempting to silence her criticism of his response to the pandemic. Supporters have since raised more than $200,000 for her legal defense through a gofundme page.

DeSantis acknowledged Friday for the first time that he was aware of the investigation by Florida Department of Law Enforcement, but he visibly bristled when a reporter characterized the serving of the warrant as a raid.

Related: Watch footage of police raid of Florida data analyst’s home

“It’s not a raid. I mean, with all due respect, what you just said is editorializing,’' DeSantis told a reporter. As the reporter tried to clarify the question, he interrupted.

“Excuse me. Excuse me. No excuse me,’' he said, his voice getting louder. “I’m not gonna let you get away with it. These people did their jobs. They’ve been smeared as the ‘Gestapo’ for doing their jobs. They did a search warrant. Why did they do a search warrant on the house? Because her IP address was linked to the felony. What were they supposed to do, just ignore it? Of course not.”

DeSantis then abruptly left the impromptu news conference held at the end of a roundtable event on mental health at the Tampa Firefighter’s Museum.

DeSantis, however, has used the term “raid” to describe the execution of search warrants in the past. In April 2018 the FBI confiscated documents at the home of Michael Cohen, the former attorney for President Donald Trump. DeSantis, who was then in Congress, appeared on the Fox Business Network’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight” show and said: “Look how quick they are to go raid Michael Cohen’s office when it suits them.”

Earlier in Friday’s news conference, DeSantis explained why the four officers arrived at Jones’ home.

“This individual became known because she alleged a conspiracy theory at the Department of Health, which is unfounded; never proven at all,’' he said.

The attendees at the roundtable, including DeSantis, House Speaker Chris Sprowls and the First Lady, Casey DeSantis, arrived wearing masks but removed them at the start of the event. They sat about five feet except for DeSantis and his wife.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement launched its investigation after the Florida Department of Health reported that a system used to send emergency communications was hacked earlier this month and used to send an unauthorized message to members of the State Emergency Response Team responsible for coordinating public health and medical response.

The Nov. 10 message, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, urged 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.”

DeSantis said that investigators had subpoenaed internet providers to find out that Jones’ residence was associated with the IP address that had sent the message.

Jones has claimed she was 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.

DeSantis said her conspiracy theories had never been proven and that Floridians would expect the state to protect key emergency messaging systems.

“They’re probably going to be able to match those devices to the intrusion, at which point that’s clearly a felony offense,” he said. “Just because you’re a darling of some corners of the fever swamps, that does not exempt you from following the law.”

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writers Ana Ceballos and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this story.