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DeSantis reveals criminal charge against ousted data manager, but questions remain

Gov. Ron DeSantis incorrectly said a dropped harassment charge was open, but a stalking case still is.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s office said Tuesday that a Department of Health data manager who was reassigned after objecting to an order to remove data was fired for insubordination, rather than retribution.

By Wednesday, DeSantis said she shouldn’t have been working there at all, revealing that she faces an open criminal charge.

He got key facts wrong in both of those allegations against her.

Although DeSantis’s office said Rebekah Jones had been fired from her job as geographic information systems manager, Department of Health spokesman Alberto Moscoso said Jones is still technically employed. He said she has the option to resign by 5 p.m. Thursday. If she does not, she will then be fired. The Department of Health has not said publicly why they have asked Jones to resign.

DeSantis also incorrectly described Jones’ legal situation while speaking to reporters in Orlando with Vice President Mike Pence.

“She’s also under active criminal charges in the state of Florida. She’s being charged with cyberstalking and cyber sexual harassment,” DeSantis said.

“I’ve asked the Department of Health to explain to me how someone would be allowed to be charged with that and continue on, because this was many months ago," DeSantis continued. "I have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment.”

DeSantis called her termination as a result of insubordination “valid.”

“But she should have been dismissed long before that,” he said.

Yet according to Leon County court records, Jones faces only the misdemeanor charge of cyberstalking. Warrants for that charge and a misdemeanor charge of sexual cyberharassment came in July 2019, but at the end of that month, the state attorney dropped the charges down to only one count of misdemeanor stalking.

Jones, 30, was appointed to her Department of Health job in November 2019, according to an article in the Syracuse University alumni magazine.

Rebekah Jones in her office at the Florida Department of Health. [ Photo courtesy of Rebekah Jones ]

Her attorney sent the Times a statement Thursday morning.

“It is unfortunate that Ms. Jones has been thrust into this spotlight.” Robert A. Morris wrote. "I am certain that appropriate investigation and inquiry from oversight committees and other investigative agencies will reveal what has happened and why it has happened.

“Ms. Jones has a sound academic history. Her prior personal history and challenges should not be mixed with the present circumstance. Ms. Jones is working hard to resolve personal and private legal issues that are completely unrelated to her awkward thrust into the national media through no choice of her own.”

Jones became a focal point for national attention last Friday after she wrote in an email that she had been taken off duties overseeing the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, which lets the public view the most recent data on infections, deaths and testing.

Related: Update: Florida Health Department manager told to delete coronavirus data forced to resign, she says

In her message, Jones wrote that because she was no longer maintaining the COVID-19 data, users might expect to see less “accessibility and transparency,” she said.

“After all, my commitment to both is largely (arguably entirely) the reason I am no longer managing it,” she wrote.”

Jones also told CBS12 in Tallahassee she refused at one point to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.”

Her comments set off a firestorm of media coverage, raising more questions about the DeSantis’ administration’s transparency on the COVID-19 outbreak.

Emails obtained by the Times showed that Jones did object to an order to remove data on May 4, the day before she was reassigned. The data that was removed showed Floridians had reported early symptoms or positive tests before the state announced any confirmed cases. The instruction came the same day Miami Herald reporters asked the agency about the data.

“This is the wrong call,” Jones told I.T. manager Craig Curry that evening, according to the May 4 email.

A few minutes later, she emailed Curry again. “Case line data is down,” meaning the data containing a field showing early symptoms or tests results from January had been removed from the state website.

The data field was taken down, only to be replaced the next day.

On May 5, Times reporters asked why the data temporarily vanished. Two days later, a department spokesman did not offer an explanation, but said “this field continues to be represented on the Department’s COVID-19 Dashboard.”

On Wednesday, DeSantis said that Jones “was putting data on the portal which the scientists didn’t believe was valid data.” His spokeswoman did not immediately respond to emails Wednesday afternoon asking what specific data DeSantis was referencing.

A Health Department spokesman explained what the data meant to Tampa Bay Times reporters on May 12. “The first date of entry in answer to any question asked of an interviewee during an epidemiological investigation, COVID-related or not, is designated the event date.” According to a description on a Department of Health website in May, “Event date is the earliest date associated with the case. For coronavirus, it would either be the self-reported onset of symptoms date or lab report date.”

DeSantis on Wednesday portrayed the media’s representation of Jones’ claims as another example of a larger conspiracy by reporters to push a false narrative that he’s mismanaged Florida’s response to COVID-19.

“You have a lot of people in your profession who wax poetically for weeks and weeks about how Florida was going to be just like New York,” he said while he wagged a finger at reporters. "Well hell, we’re eight weeks away from that and it hasn’t happened.

“We’ve succeeded and I think people just don’t want to recognize that because it challenges their narrative, it challenges their assumption," he continued as Pence, nodding his head in agreement, looked on. "So they’ve got to try to find a bogeyman. Maybe it’s the black helicopters circling the Department of Health. If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.”

Yet it took nearly 24 hours for DeSantis’ administration to answer initial questions from reporters about Jones.

Media reports of Jones’ public email came out Monday night. The Tampa Bay Times reported the internal emails Tuesday morning but was unable to get the Department of Health to comment after making numerous requests. It wasn’t until DeSantis’ news conference hours later, at 5 p.m., that he finally acknowledged Jones and that came only after a reporter asked him directly. DeSantis said he didn’t know Jones and that it was a “non-issue” anyway.

He made no mention then of insubordination and did not address why she was fired.

But minutes after DeSantis left the news conference as reporters shouted questions, his spokeswoman, Helen Aguirre Ferré, sent an email to reporters. It said that Jones had “exhibited a repeated course of insubordination during her time with the Department, including her unilateral decisions to modify the Department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors.”

Ferré also sent reporters a private email by Jones in which she apologized to her supervisor for her comments suggesting the employees replacing her wouldn’t be transparent.

Still, neither DeSantis nor the Department of Health have addressed why the data was taken down, nor has either office given specific cases of insubordination by Jones.

A Times reporter asked a spokesman for the Department of Health on Tuesday if Jones had faced any disciplinary action and why she was removed from the dashboard, but had not received a response. On Wednesday, the Times requested to review Jones’ personnel file, a public record under Florida law. The Department of Health responded late Wednesday that the request had been filed.

Jones did not respond to a phone call or text message seeking comment.

Jones was enrolled in a geography Ph.D. program at Florida State University from fall 2016 through spring 2018, according to a spokesman for the university. The school has not posted any degrees for her, he said.

Records also show Jones faced a 2017 criminal mischief charge that was dropped and 2018 charges of violation of a domestic violence injunction, trespassing and robbery that did not result in any conviction but an order to avoid contact with a person.

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