Denying responsibility for DOH hack, Rebekah Jones warns her sources in department to ‘be careful’
Image via Rebekah Jones.

Jones
The former DOH data manager fears retaliation against leakers after law enforcement seize her phone and laptop in a Monday raid.

Appearing on national television Monday evening, former Department of Health coronavirus data manager Rebekah Jones denied that she breeched a department emergency communication system, and issued a warning to her anonymous sources within the department.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers did not take her router or other laptops in her house during a Monday morning raid, Jones told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Cuomo Prime Time. They only seized her phone and computer.

“On my phone is every communication I’ve ever had with someone who works at the state who has come to me in confidence and told me things that could get them fired or in trouble like this,” Jones said, “and I just want to say to all those people right now, if he doesn’t know already, (Gov. Ron DeSantis) will know soon enough that you’ve been talking to me, so be careful.”

Added Jones: “This is just a very thinly-veiled attempt of the Governor to intimidate scientists and get back at me while trying to get to my sources as he’s been firing DOH staff left and right, including their director of communications who was fired about that time.”

According to FDLE, a hacker on Nov. 10 sent State Emergency Response Team members text messages through a custom-made communications application for the Division of Emergency Management reserved for emergencies only. The message, first reported last month by the Tampa Bay Times, urged recipients 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.”

DOH estimates that 1,750 messages were sent before software vendors with ReadyOp, who designed the system, were able to cancel the distribution.

Jones, a frequent DeSantis critic who was fired in May for what his administration has called repeated insubordination, said she has not had access to DOH systems for more than six months.

“I’m not a hacker,” she added. “As the Governor pointed out many months ago, I’m not that tech savvy and have no interest in reaching out to DOH.”

The text also used language Jones said was not the way she talks. The number of deaths in the text “wasn’t even right.”

“They were off — they were actually under by about 430 deaths,” Jones said. “I would never round down 430 deaths. Those are 430 people who have died in the state. I take that number and every number I publish very seriously.”

DOH’s report released less than an hour before the hack showed 17,248 dead residents and 212 dead nonresidents, a total of 17,460 individuals.

And after warning that her former colleagues are at risk of retaliation, she forecasted that the raid wouldn’t encourage possible whistleblowers to come forward now.

“I have been publicly telling people to come forward for months,” Jones said. “That is the way that you do it, and I, better than anybody, know that people at DOH aren’t going to. If they didn’t come out before, when I warned everybody that DeSantis would and eventually he did get people killed, they’re not going to come out now.”

An FDLE affidavit says investigators secured an IP address tied to Jones’ home as the hack’s source. But she contents that IP address came from DOH’s inspector general’s office, not from an original FDLE investigation.

There is nothing to the state’s allegations, Jones added, and she is “not too worried” about possible legal repercussions.

“The only direct communication I’ve ever sent to DOH was through a public op-ed in the Miami Herald asking people to speak out, and that was many months ago,” she said.

Jones’ lawyer, Larry Walters, called it “highly unusual” for the state to have seized her confidential communications.

“We are concerned that this is retaliation for pursuing a discrimination claim against the state and criticizing the Governor’s COVID-19 response,” Walters said in a statement to WTSP. “We will thoroughly investigate these issues and take all necessary action to protect our client’s rights.”

Monday’s raid is the latest confrontation between Jones and the agency where she once worked.

Jones, who used to curate coronavirus data for DOH’s dashboard as the department’s Division of Disease Control and Health Protection geographic information systems manager, was fired in May for what the DeSantis administration called repeated insubordination. Jones contends she was fired for refusing to manipulate the data.

“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,” DeSantis’ then-spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré said in May. “Having someone disruptive cannot be tolerated during this public pandemic, which led the Department to determine that it was best to terminate her employment.”

That month, DeSantis accused the national media of latching onto the story because claims Florida would become the next Italy of the pandemic didn’t come true.

“Maybe it’s that there are black helicopters circling the Department of Health,” he said. “If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.”

The administration also brought to the media’s attention criminal charges that had been filed against Jones last year.

A review of Leon County court documents shows that Jones was charged in July 2019 with two counts of cyberstalking and one count of sexual cyber harassment. According to court records, one of the cases Jones is still open.

Jones filed a whistleblower complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations in July.

The Nov. 10 hack came in the afternoon after news broke that the state’s Office of Policy and Budget had hired an Ohio sports blogger who downplays the virus’ severity on social media to manage the dashboard Jones once oversaw.

Since her firing, Jones has used publicly-available DOH coronavirus data to create an alternate dashboard to track COVID-19 infections. In August, she launched The COVID Monitor to track cases in schools across the country.

“DeSantis needs to worry less about what I’m writing about and more about the people who are sick and dying in his state, and doing this to me will not stop me from reporting the data, ever,” Jones said.

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.



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