Angry Florida governor defends police raid on COVID data whistleblower

Alexander Nazaryan
·National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis angrily defended the handling of a search warrant at the Tallahassee home of Rebekah Jones, the data scientist who ran the state’s coronavirus dashboard until she was fired in May.

State police officers entered her home with guns drawn on Monday, and Jones can be heard on body camera footage loudly pleading, “Do not point a gun at my children!” She later likened the officers to agents of the Gestapo, the secret police in Nazi Germany.

Jones has alleged in a whistleblower lawsuit that her firing was in retaliation for her refusal to manipulate data to make the state’s COVID-19 outbreak last spring appear less severe.

Speaking at a symposium on mental health in Tampa, DeSantis disparaged Jones. “Obviously, she has issues,” he said in response to a reporter’s question. Later, when another reporter asked about Monday’s incident — a recording of which was made by Jones and went viral on social media, drawing widespread outrage — DeSantis grew visibly irritated.

“It was not a raid,” the governor said, at one point thrusting a finger and raising his voice at the reporter who asked about the Jones case. “They went, they followed protocol.” He said the Gestapo comparison was especially offensive.

Gov. Ron DeSantis answers questions while First Lady Casey DeSantis listens at a mental health symposium in Tampa.
Gov. Ron DeSantis answers questions while first lady Casey DeSantis listens at a mental health symposium in Tampa. (Ivy Ceballo/Tampa Bay Times via ZUMA Wire)

In keeping with his Trumpian approach to politics, DeSantis also denounced the “fever swamps” of the internet — his apparent term for mainstream media outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post — for turning Jones into a “darling” of, presumably, anti-Trump progressives.

(“He threw me into the public spotlight,” Jones told Yahoo News in response to that accusation. “I never wanted it.”)

Officers executed a search warrant on Jones’s home on Monday morning, after knocking on her door for several minutes before she opened it and came outside with her hands up. Jones has said she wanted to settle her children before acknowledging the officers. It is not clear why the officers drew their weapons to go inside. They left with laptops and cellphones, which were being sought as part of an investigation into a Nov. 10 message sent to Florida Department of Health employees, encouraging them to resist DeSantis.

State authorities allege that digital fingerprints indicate that Jones, who now runs a coronavirus dashboard of her own, was behind the message. Jones denies she was the author and maintains she did not have the means to access the department’s emergency notification system, through which the note was sent. Users on Reddit have discovered that the emergency system would have been easy to access, and that anyone else — not just Jones — could have accessed the system and sent the Nov. 10 message with relative ease.

Bodycam footage shows the state police raid on Rebekah Jones' home. (Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement)
Bodycam footage shows the state police raid on Rebekah Jones's home on Monday. (Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement)

DeSantis had previously said he was not aware that a warrant would be executed, but he seemed to offer a different version of events on Friday. “I know there was an investigation,” he acknowledged. He seemed on the cusp of saying more but then stopped short.

“Guess he lied when he said he had no idea about the investigation [on] Monday,” Jones remarked to Yahoo News after watching a recording of the governor’s exchange.

DeSantis spokesman Fred Piccolo told Yahoo News that there was nothing inconsistent about the governor’s position. “He indicated he knew there was an investigation, not there was an investigation into Miss Jones,” Piccolo wrote in an email. “We said all along that he neither directed initiated or knew about any details of the investigation or in any way steered it.”

The warrant to confiscate Jones’s electronic devices was signed by Joshua M. Hawkes, a well-connected Republican who has been on the state bench for only a matter of weeks. His office did not answer a request for comment.

Close to 20,000 people have died from the coronavirus in Florida. A close acolyte of President Trump, DeSantis has consistently downplayed and misrepresented the scope of the pandemic. A recent investigation by the South Florida Sun Sentinel described how the DeSantis administration “engaged in a pattern of spin and concealment that misled the public on the gravest health threat the state has ever faced.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, speaks alongside President Donald Trump during a July roundtable discussion.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks alongside President Trump during a July roundtable discussion. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Earlier this week, Republican lawyer Ron Filipkowski resigned from a judicial nominating committee in protest over the Jones raid. “I have been increasingly alarmed by the Governor’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” Filipkowski wrote in his resignation letter. He said he found the assertion made by gubernatorial spokesman Piccolo that DeSantis knew nothing of the raid “not credible.”

Democrats, who hope to unseat the unpopular DeSantis in 2022, criticized Friday’s reaction. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, Gov. DeSantis has deliberately promoted misinformation and misled Floridians on coronavirus,” state Rep. Carlos G. Smith, a leading progressive voice in the Florida Legislature, told Yahoo News. “His unhinged reaction to legitimate questions from journalists present new questions about his suitability for the job.”

Among the officers who took part in the raid was Erika Hindle-Morris, the wife of Robert Morris, who was representing Jones in an unrelated case in which she was charged with stalking a former romantic partner. Morris has since withdrawn from the stalking case.

Jones told Yahoo News that despite Monday’s confiscation of her computer equipment, she has been able to purchase new equipment and resume work on her dashboard. “Everything was back up and running the next day,” she said.

This article was updated to properly reflect when Jones was fired.

Cover thumbnail photos: Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement, courtesy of Rebekah Jones

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