Rebekah Jones: Raid of former Florida Covid data scientist’s home could affect other state employees, legal experts warn

Rebekah Jones, who was fired after accusing Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration of minimizing the pandemic and skewing state data, attracted national attention after her house was raided by armed state police on Monday morning. State authorities are investigating whether she accessed a government messaging system without authorization to send a message urging her former colleagues to speak out about coronavirus deaths.

Jones has denied sending the message, but she told CNN she fears the computers and phone that state police seized from her Tallahassee home could expose her sources in the government to retaliation.

Jones was fired from the state health department in May. She claims she was terminated for refusing to manipulate coronavirus data, but state officials have said she was insubordinate and didn’t consult with epidemiological experts.

Since her firing, she’s emerged as a public critic of the DeSantis administration’s approach to the pandemic, blasting the governor and publishing her own dashboard of coronavirus stats. Jones said she received various internal records from people who worked for the state, including what she said was proof that state officials “were lying in January about things like internal reports and notices from the CDC.”

That evidence was on “a bunch of flash drives” that officers took when they raided her house, she said. Jones, who was not arrested or criminally charged, also had documents that she had legally accessed when she was a state employee, she said.

Now, legal experts say, the material could theoretically be used to target Jones’ sources if they violated rules about sharing internal information. The search warrant allowed officers to recover “any and all computer equipment” that stores or transmits data, including hard drives, devices, software, and correspondence “pertaining to the possession, receipt, origin or distribution of data involving the facilitation of computer crimes offenses.”

“The warrant was extremely broad,” Lawrence Walters, Jones’ attorney, told CNN. “We would hope that this is a targeted investigation to search for what they claim they were searching for. … If their true intent is to investigate all of her personal communications and investigate her sources, that would demonstrate this is abusive and retaliatory.”

Still, he said, “we cannot stop them looking at what they have.”

A spokesperson for the state Department of Law Enforcement said agents are currently only investigating Jones but still analyzing evidence.

“At this point we are only investigating her for the cybercrime,” said spokesperson Gretl Plessinger. “If we do receive other information about other crimes or that could lead to another suspect, obviously we will follow up on that.”

Why Jones’ sources should be ‘nervous’

Employment attorneys in Florida said that state workers who leaked internal records to Jones could face disciplinary action or possibly legal trouble — although they might be able to seek protection under state whistleblower laws.

Jones filed a whistleblower complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations in July, asking to be reinstated with back pay. That complaint is still pending and is confidential at this stage of the process, according to Walters, her lawyer.

Cathleen Scott, a Florida employment lawyer who isn’t involved in the case, said that because of that complaint, people who leaked to Jones with the purpose of assisting her whistleblowing may be able to argue they should be protected from retaliation by the state. In some circumstances, “if you disclose information in furtherance of whistleblowing, you’d be protected for that,” Scott said.

But Matthew Fenton, another employment lawyer in the state, said he would be “nervous” if he were one of Jones’ sources in the government.

Florida becomes the third state to reach 1 million coronavirus cases

Public employees who want to be whistleblowers under Florida law generally have to disclose information to specific government authorities, he said. “Somebody who is just leaking her information is not following the chain of command,” he said. “These informal channels would be significantly less protected.”

The investigation centers around whether Jones used a state government messaging system without authorization. According to the affidavit by an agent with the law enforcement department, an unauthorized individual illegally accessed an emergency management system to send a group text message to government officials last month urging them to speak out about the coronavirus crisis.

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

Officials traced the message, which was sent on the afternoon of November 10, to an IP address connected to Jones’ house, the agent wrote in the affidavit.

The affidavit also raised questions about the health department’s cybersecurity practices. According to the agent, all users on the emergency planning group — who included health department employees and employees of other government agencies — logged in with the same username and password. The message went out to about 1,750 people before the software vendor stopped it, the affidavit said.

Cybersecurity experts said they were surprised that the state would use a messaging service with such a weak security protocol. Mark Tehranipoor, a cybersecurity professor at the University of Florida and the director of the Florida Institute for Cybersecurity Research, said the procedure raised huge red flags.

Users sharing the same username and password “magnifies the possibility of that password being leaked, intentionally or unintentionally,” Tehranipoor said. “It’s just a very outdated thing to do.”

But just because someone didn’t engage in any kind of advanced hacking to access the message system doesn’t mean logging into the system without authorization wasn’t a crime. The Florida law cited in the search warrant says it’s illegal for anyone to access “any computer, computer system, computer network, or electronic device with knowledge that such access is unauthorized or the manner of use exceeds authorization.”

The state health department didn’t respond to a request for comment about its cybersecurity practices.

DeSantis facing growing criticism over Covid response

The investigation of Jones comes as DeSantis is facing increasing scrutiny over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Even as coronavirus cases in Florida have spiked again over the last month and a half, DeSantis has refused to allow municipalities in the state to enforce their own mask mandates or stricter social distancing laws. That limitation of local control has been criticized by mayors from both parties.
An investigation by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel published last week found that DeSantis’ administration worked to minimize bad news about the pandemic and spread misinformation. Some health department spokespeople were told in September not to issue statements until after the November election, and officials withheld crucial data about the spread of the virus, the newspaper reported.

Jones, who helped build the state’s coronavirus dashboard, has become one of the governor’s harshest critics, publicly alleging that DeSantis was to blame for the mounting death toll.

She said that she thought the raid was an attempt by DeSantis to silence her, and a sign of how her criticism has been a thorn in the side of his administration. “I had six straight months of success against him in destroying his reputation,” she said.

But DeSantis’ office says he had no advance knowledge of the raid.

“The Governor was not aware of the investigation nor will he offer his opinion on what information should or should not be used in any criminal prosecution,” DeSantis spokesperson Fred Piccolo told CNN. “This is a case involving the unauthorized use of a text message system that Floridians rely on for timely, fact based updates. The Governor has every confidence in law enforcement to address the matter and the courts to adjudicate it.”

State police raid criticized as ‘over-the-top’

A day after the raid, there was also disagreement over exactly what happened inside Jones’ Tallahassee home.

Jones released a video she took showing an officer pointing his gun up a stairwell in her house. She said he was pointing the firearm at her 2-year-old daughter, 11-year-old son and her husband, who she said were in the stairwell, although the video doesn’t make that clear. Outside her house, out of sight of the video, another officer “pointed a gun six inches from my face,” Jones said.

But Rick Swearingen, the department’s commissioner, said in a statement that “at no time were weapons pointed at anyone in the home.” Agents knocked on her door and called Jones on the phone multiple times, and she hung up on them and refused to come to the door for about 23 minutes, the department said. The department did not respond to a question about whether the officers at her house were wearing body cameras.

“Agents exercised tremendous restraint throughout the execution of the search warrant yesterday, especially considering the significant delay they faced in gaining entry,” said Plessinger, a spokesperson for the department.

Walters, Jones’ lawyer, said “she took a few minutes to get dressed because she believed the police were there to arrest her.”

The dramatic video that Jones took of officers entering her house with guns drawn quickly went viral, and her tweet with a clip of the video had more than 120,000 retweets as of Tuesday morning.

Several Democratic elected officials in the state condemned the raid.

“The guns drawn FDLE raid on the home of Rebekah Jones was shocking, over-the-top, and demands a full explanation,” Charlie Crist, a congressman and former Florida governor, said in a statement. “Unless we get more information showing otherwise, it looks like an act of retaliation or an attempt to silence Ms. Jones for her critiques of the state’s COVID-19 response.”
And Ron Filipkowski, a lawyer appointed by DeSantis to a judicial nomination commission, publicly resigned Tuesday in what he said was a protest over the governor’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and the raid of Jones’ home.

“This is not being done to ferret out a crime,” Filipkowski told CNN. “It’s being done to intimidate.”

Jones said that while she wouldn’t stop her work publishing coronavirus data, she was planning to move her family away from Florida.

“We’re going to move the hell out of here,” she said. “It’s one thing to point a gun at me, it’s a completely different one to point it at my children.”

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