Former Florida congressional candidate and fired pandemic health manager Rebekah Jones agreed in a court document to admit she was guilty of a hacking-related felony. She now disputes prosecutors’ claims that she illegally used a government messaging service to send mass texts criticizing Gov. Ron DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic.
The prosecutor in her felony criminal case, Georgia Cappleman, said Monday in an interview that Jones’ public assertions of innocence about some claims in the criminal complaint against her will not affect the deferred prosecution agreement she signed with the Leon County State Attorney’s Office.
“It’s inconsistent with the document, but I don’t really care what she says,” Cappleman said with an audible sigh. “It’s a free country.”
Under the plea agreement, made public Friday in Leon County Circuit Court, Jones also agreed to pay $200 per month toward $20,000 to cover the state’s cost of the criminal investigation, attend mental health counseling monthly and perform 150 hours of community service. She had no previous felony convictions on her record.
Jones called the provision requiring her to pay the $20,000 a form of extortion.
“It sucks, I’m not happy about it,” she said. “I think it’s extortion. I think it’s an all-too common practice. It’s one of the reasons rich people don’t ever go to jail and poor people do because if you can’t pay the police a bribe, guess what, take you to trial.”
If Jones completes terms of the deal and does not commit any new crimes for two years, prosecutors said they would drop the felony charge of accessing a computer system without or exceeding authorization. The State Attorney’s Office said it could revoke or modify the agreement if she were to violate any conditions.
After she signed the agreement last week — one month after she lost the election for Florida’s 1st Congressional District by 35 percentage points running as a Democrat in the heavily conservative Panhandle to incumbent GOP U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz — Jones said she wasn’t guilty of sending the text messages and wondered why there was no public outcry, apology or media vindication over her case.
“We all know who the person who sent that text message was, and, of course, it wasn’t me,” Jones said in a TikTok video posted late Sunday. On Saturday, she also posted a 2,300-word essay on her personal website that described prosecutors asking her to “admit guilt to a crime I did not commit.”
Jones also threatened to sue Gaetz for libel after the congressman last week tweeted from his personal account a news article about Jones’ plea agreement and wrote, “The people who have lied about me keep pleading GUILTY to their crimes.” Jones was not required to enter a formal plea of guilty in her case but the document she signed said, “Defendant admits her guilt of the offense(s) charged.”
She called the tweet a “blatantly false, defamatory and libelous statement by Matt Gaetz, and we’ll be seeing him in a lawsuit very, very soon.” She added, “There was no guilty plea. There was no plea of any kind because it’s a dismissal. The case is being dropped.”
Jones, whose Twitter account remains permanently suspended, said in a second TikTok that she admitted guilt to possessing a data file on her computer that was a roster of people working on the pandemic she said was sent to her before she was fired from the Florida Department of Health. Prosecutors said she had downloaded it illegally after she was fired.
In an interview Monday, Jones said the language in the plea agreement was carefully negotiated between prosecutors and her lawyers.
“The language I provided was negotiated for months and was all that I was willing to concede — that I had a contact roster saved to my cloud storage,” she said. “I did not state I obtained the document illegally, that I did not have a right or legitimate reason to have it, only that it was in my possession.”
The criminal complaint filed in January 2021 against Jones accused her of illegally sending two texts in November 2020 criticizing the handling of the pandemic to 1,750 people, and also illegally downloading that roster of pandemic contacts the same day, Nov. 10 that year, after she was fired.
The felony hacking charge the State Attorney’s Office formally filed against her in January 2021 did not distinguish which underlying allegation was the basis for the felony case, and the new plea agreement didn’t make any distinction, either.
Jones also said the remaining balance of just over $15,000 would be forgiven after two years of paying $200 per month, but the agreement actually said any balance would be converted to a civil judgment against Jones.
“At the end of the two-year period the rest is forgiven,” she said.
The agreement avoids a high-profile criminal trial that had been set for Jan. 23 in Tallahassee. Jones had faced up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Jones is crowdsourcing funds to pay her legal fees. She asked her newsletter subscribers to donate, writing that “the rich truly do not experience the same justice system as the rest of us.” Her GoFundMe, which she originally created two years ago, has raised $352,668 – and nearly $10,000 in small donations in the five days since her criminal case was dismissed.
Jones gained national attention in 2020 after she was fired for what she said was refusing directions to manipulate the state’s COVID dashboard data. State officials said she was fired for insubordination after being reprimanded several times, and a state inspector general report rejected her claim as unfounded.
The criminal case against Jones coincided with her public campaign criticizing the Governor’s response to the pandemic and included a police search of her family’s home in Tallahassee in December 2020. Jones published a dramatic video of police entering her home with their guns drawn. Police seized her computer and phone.
Meanwhile, Jones’ congressional campaign filed its final financial reports last week with the Federal Election Commission. They showed Jones had raised $980,181, including $171,650 in personal loans Jones made to her campaign. She reimbursed herself $38,000 including $2,500 days after the election she lost. Gaetz had raised $6.6 million in his campaign.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at [email protected]. You can donate to support our students here.