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Ex-Florida data scientist turns herself in after arrest warrant issued

Rebekah Jones says she was fired from the Florida Department of Health after she refused to "manipulate" COVID-19 data (Photo: Courtesy photo)
Rebekah Jones says she was fired from the Florida Department of Health after she refused to "manipulate" COVID-19 data (Photo: Courtesy photo)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A former Florida Department of Health employee who was fired for insubordination after repeatedly violating the agency’s policy about communicating with the media turned herself in to sheriff’s officials on Sunday night on charges of accessing computer equipment without authority.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced the arrest of Rebekah Jones, 31, on Monday morning. The agency said she is charged with one count of offenses against users of computers, computer systems, computer networks and electronic devices.

Court records show that Jones posted a $2,500 bond following an initial appearance hearing in Tallahassee on Monday morning.

A former Florida Department of Health employee who was fired for insubordination after repeatedly violating the agency’s policy about communicating with the media turned herself in to sheriff’s officials on Sunday night on charges of accessing computer equipment without authority.
A former Florida Department of Health employee who was fired for insubordination after repeatedly violating the agency’s policy about communicating with the media turned herself in to sheriff’s officials on Sunday night on charges of accessing computer equipment without authority.

The law enforcement agency asked that Jones be banned from computer access, internet access and “contact with the witnesses or those people whose personal information was acquired through the download.”

But Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper denied the state’s request for a blanket computer ban during an appearance Monday morning, according to Stephen Dobson, a Tallahassee criminal defense attorney who represents Jones. Dobson told The News Service of Florida that Cooper also rejected the state’s request for GPS monitoring of Jones, but the judge sided with the state and prohibited Jones from accessing the state Department of Health website.

Jones filed a civil lawsuit against FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen, Pratts and an agent identified as “John Doe” last month and filed a motion seeking to force law enforcement officials to return her equipment.

But during a hearing on the motion Wednesday, Cooper said he couldn’t decide whether Jones should get her computers and other equipment back until he learned whether prosecutors and FDLE intended to file criminal charges against her.

Jones tweeted on Sunday morning that “insurrectionists planning attacks across the country this week and Florida is jailing scientists for the crimes of knowing and speaking." She also tweeted that she is “censored by the state of Florida until further notice."

The investigation began Nov. 10 after FDLE received a complaint from the state's health department that someone illegally accessed a state emergency-alert messaging system, known as ReadyOp, a news release said.

Agents determined the message was sent from the home where Jones lived in Tallahassee, the news release said.

The agency obtained a search warrant and evidence received from the home on Dec. 7 shows that Jones illegally accessed the system and sent a message to about 1,750 people, and downloaded confidential data and saved it to her devices.

The case will be prosecuted by the state attorney's office in Tallahassee.

Jones contends that she was fired for not falsifying data. She sued the state in December, calling the search of her home a “sham."

After the search warrant was executed, Jones posted a 31-second video of officers entering her home, and the department later released more than 20 minutes of bodycam video that shows she refused to respond to phone calls and knocks on her door.

The message that led to the search warrant implored employees still at the Health Department “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.”

While Jones has had several run-ins with law enforcement over personal issues, she gained international attention by disputing Florida’s COVID-19 statistics.

As a Department of Health employee, she was paid an annual salary of nearly $48,000. Since May she has raised more than $273,000 on a GoFundMe account after criticizing Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Dobson said Cooper has allowed Jones to return to her home in Chevy Chase, Md., and that she plans on heading back as quickly as possible.

Jones’ lawyers asked the FDLE if she could turn herself in later in the week, because she was sick.

But the agency threatened to arrest her in Maryland if she did not turn herself in by Monday night, Dobson said. Jones tested positive for COVID-19 before being released from jail, he said.

The state’s actions regarding Jones have been “overreach, completely,” Dobson said in a phone interview Monday afternoon.

“There really are serious crimes out there they could be investigating. I think we’ve seen that in the last few weeks. But they seem to be spending an extraordinary amount of time, effort and resources on Rebekah Jones,’ he said. “It is really quite remarkable.”