Fired Florida COVID-19 Data Scientist Turns Herself in On Arrest Warrant

Fired Florida COVID-19 Data Scientist Turns Herself in On Arrest Warrant
A health care worker use a nasal swab to test Marcelino Soto for COVID-19 at a pop up testing site at the Koinonia Worship Center and Village in Pembroke Park, Fla., on July 22, 2020. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Isabel van Brugen

The former Florida Department of Health (DOH) data scientist who was fired in May last year for alleged insubordination, turned herself into police Sunday, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) said.

Rebekah Jones, who has claimed that she was let go of by the department for refusing to manipulate pandemic figures for Florida officials, has been charged with one count of offenses against users of computers, computer systems, computer networks and electronic devices, the FDLE said.

In its arrest warrant affidavit, the FDLE had proposed bond conditions of “no computer access, no internet access, and no contact with the witnesses or those people whose personal information was acquired through the download.”

Her bond was set at $2,500 by a judge following a virtual court appearance Monday. The judge rejected the department’s request to fit Jones, 31, with a GPS tracking device, and to block her computer and internet access.

“It was a little bit of overreach, which I think this entire case has been overreach,” said Jones’ attorney, Stephen Dobson, USA Today reported.

If convicted of the third-degree felony, Jones faces a prison sentence of up to five years and a $5,000 fine.

Jones, who was accused in a complaint in November of accessing the state health department’s messaging service without permission, said on Twitter Saturday that she intended to turn herself into police.

“To protect my family from continued police violence, and to show that I’m ready to fight whatever they throw at me, I’m turning myself into police in Florida Sunday night,” Jones said on the social media platform. “The Governor will not win his war on science and free speech. He will not silence those who speak out.”
Jones was visited at her Tallahassee home by Florida state police last month. Jones’s computer, phone and other devices were seized during a warranted search.

FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen said in a statement in December that an investigation by the agency began in November following a complaint by the health department that an individual “illegally hacked into their emergency alert system.”

Jones allegedly sent a message from a health department emergency messaging system urging civil servants to “speak up,” according to the FDLE’s arrest warrant affidavit.

“It’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead,” part of the alleged message read. ”You know this is wrong. You don’t have to be part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it’s too late.”

The FLDE alleges the system message was sent to roughly 1,750 people. Jones also allegedly “downloaded confidential FDOH data and saved it to her devices,” for approximately 19,182 people across Florida state.

Jones has claimed that before she was fired, she was instructed to lower the state’s CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus positivity rating so that Florida would appear to meet its target to reopen.
Rebekah Jones during a interview with CNN on June 24. (Courtesy of CNN)
Rebekah Jones during a interview with CNN on June 24. (Courtesy of CNN)
“To me, it did not read like some kind of political conspiracy or some higher directive,” Jones told NPR in June. “It seemed like people who expected when I brought in those results, the results to support the plan they had written, and they did not, they seemed panicked, and like they had to figure out a way to make the results match the plan.”

The governor’s office said in May, however, that during her time with the department, Jones “exhibited a repeated course of insubordination … including her unilateral decisions to modify the department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors.”

“The blatant disrespect for the professionals who were working around the clock to provide the important information for the COVID-19 website was harmful to the team,” the spokeswoman for the governor’s office Helen Ferre said in a statement at the time.

The case will be prosecuted by the Office of the State Attorney for the 2nd Judicial Circuit.

Isabel van Brugen is an award-winning journalist. She holds a master's in newspaper journalism from City, University of London.
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