Scientist Rebekah Jones. Screengrab: @GeoRebekah/Twitter
Scientist Rebekah Jones. Screengrab: @GeoRebekah/Twitter

Cops raid house of fired data scientist Rebekah Jones who said Florida manipulated Covid-19 stats

By The Washington Post Time of article published Dec 8, 2020

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Reis Thebault

Florida police officers with guns drawn raided the home of an ousted health department data scientist Monday morning, searching for the former agency employee's most powerful tools: her computer, her phone and other hardware that supports the coronavirus website she set up after accusing the state of manipulating its official numbers.

Authorities say the scientist, Rebekah Jones, may have also used the devices to hack into a health department website in November and to send an unauthorised message to Florida emergency personnel, urging them to speak out against the state's pandemic response.

This is the latest clash between Jones and state officials, who have traded accusations since she was fired from the Florida Department of Health this summer.

Jones said she had refused to comply with agency requests she considered unethical, and she has accused the state of mismanaging a pandemic that has infected more than a million residents and killed nearly 20 000.

After her dismissal, Jones launched her own data portal, advertising it as the transparent and independent alternative to the state dashboard. Now, Jones says, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's raid is an attempt to silence her work.

The armed officers, acting on a search warrant, knocked on the door of Jones's house in Tallahassee about 8:30 am on Monday. A state police spokesperson said the officers announced their arrival, informed Jones that they had a search warrant and tried calling her during the 20 minutes before she let them in.

A 30-second video that Jones posted to Twitter captures the tense moments after she opened her door.

Jones has her hands up as one officer orders her to walk outside. She says her husband and children are inside. The officer then draws his handgun, walks to the base of a staircase and shouts, "Mr. Jones, come down the stairs - now." Five seconds later, more officers enter, also brandishing their weapons, and one announces: "Police. Come down now."

From outside, Jones can be heard yelling, "Do not point that gun at my children" and, "He just pointed a gun at my children."

In a series of tweets hours later, Jones said the officers also pointed their weapons at her and seized her "hardware and tech," including her phone and computer. She said her devices contained "evidence of corruption at the state level."

Jones is an outspoken critic of Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and she has said her ex-managers directed her to doctor virus case data to downplay risks of infection and death in the state. The health department has denied that allegation.

"This is what happens to scientists who do their job honestly," Jones wrote. "This is what happens to people who speak truth to power."

According to an affidavit filed by state police special agent Noel Pratts, authorities traced last month's breach of a health department platform to Jones, the agency's former geographic information systems manager.

Officials use the platform, ReadyOP, to coordinate emergency response across state agencies. On November 10, members of a group specialising in public health emergencies received a message that read, according to the affidavit: "It's time 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."

At the time, officials told the Tampa Bay Times that they did not know who was behind the missive or whether that person was a state employee. Spokesman Jason Mahon called the unsanctioned use "both irresponsible and unlawful."

Jones did not respond to an interview request, and representatives for the health department and DeSantis directed questions about her allegations to the state police.

On Twitter, Jones said she would not be cowed by what she characterised as a state-sanctioned intimidation campaign.

"If Desantis thought pointing a gun in my face was a good way to get me to shut up, he's about to learn just how wrong he was," she wrote. "I'll have a new computer tomorrow. And then I'm going to get back to work."

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