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Former Department of Health data manager Rebekah Jones has filed a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, alleging the Dec. 7 morning raid on her house was a "sham" to retaliate against her for not altering COVID-19 data.
Jones was fired from her job in May and soon launched her own COVID-19 online data dashboard. Gov. Ron DeSantis blamed Jones' firing on her insubordination; Jones said she was let go because she wouldn't alter data to cast Florida in a more favorable light to justify DeSantis' plans to reopen the state's economy.
In the lawsuit filed Sunday night against FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen, the department and several agents in Leon County Circuit Civil Court, Jones claims her constitutional rights were violated, including against unlawful search and seizure. She is seeking in excess of $100,000, according to the lawsuit's cover sheet.
She also claims she was unnecessarily roughed up.
"We are trying to achieve some kind of redress," said Rick Johnson, the lead attorney in both the civil suit and a separate whistleblower case. "This is still America. This is the kind of thing that happens in tinhorn dictatorships in third world countries."
Who is Rebekah Jones? Former Florida COVID-19 data scientist had home raided by authorities
Swearingen has defended the actions of the agents he said were "vilified" by the media. He blamed Jones for any risk of danger to herself or her family. He reiterated those comments in a Monday statement.
“As I have said before, I am proud of the professionalism shown by our FDLE agents as they served a legal search warrant on the residence of Rebekah Jones. Our criminal investigation continues, and while I have not seen this lawsuit, I believe the facts will come out in court,” Swearingen said.
FDLE agents accompanied by Tallahassee Police officers arrived at 7:30 a.m. Dec. 7 to serve a search warrant on Jones' home in connection with an investigation of a security breach of a state Health Department emergency communication network.
The FDLE said it took more than 20 minutes for Jones to open the door after they began knocking. Her lawyer, Johnson, said she was still in bed when the agents started knocking, and she had to get dressed, wake up her children and call her attorney.
"She thought she was going to be arrested," Johnson said. The video shows that shortly after they said they had a warrant, Jones opened the door. The lawsuit said she opened the door 39 seconds after the first said they had a warrant.
"If they are pounding on the door without mentioning a warrant of any kind to arrest or search, a citizen doesn't have to open the door to police," Johnson said.
According to the state, an unauthorized user snuck onto the network and sent out a text message to 1,750 recipients that said: "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."
Jones, who has not been charged with a crime, has denied she hacked into the account, which had its username and password posted on a public website until state officials took it down four days after the raid.
"FDLE, seeking to ingratiate itself to DeSantis, sought to silence Plaintiff's online speech by confiscating her computer and to discover her confidential sources, and other information by seizing her cell phone," the suit says.
A video camera set up by Jones and pointed at the front door shows agents entering the house with sidearms unholstered and drawn. An agent points his gun up the stairs as he calls for Jones' husband and two children to come down.
"They entered her home with guns drawn, terrorizing her family," the complaint says. "They were there to execute a search warrant for her electronic devices; however the basis of the warrant was a sham to punish plaintiff for Plaintiff's protected speech."
Read the complaint: See the lawsuit filed by Rebekah Jones against the FDLE
Videos of body camera footage released by the FDLE shows a Tallahassee police officer at Jones' door with a sledgehammer in hand, and another law enforcement officer with his gun pointed at the door.
It also shows officers grabbing Jones, bringing her onto the front stoop and frisking her. In the lawsuit, she accused the anonymous officer of committing a battery on her "by repeatedly running his hands up and down her ribs and by gripping and holding her sides."
Jones, the architect of the state's COVID-19 dashboard that was praised by White House coronavirus task force physician Dr. Deborah Birx, was fired in May. Two months later, she filed a whistleblower complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations, alleging the governor retaliated against her for refusing to manipulate data.
Her firing made Jones a social media celebrity. She set up her own COVID-19 dashboard and began reporting data from the state.
One difference is that, unlike the state, Jones includes people who received positive results from PCR, antigen and antibody testing in her daily report of those infected with the disease. The state's daily numbers include people who received positive results for PCR and antigen tests.
While not named as a defendant, DeSantis is cast several times throughout the lawsuit as Jones' nemesis — accused of having a hand in her firing, and suggesting that he had some influence over the investigation against her. He has denied a role in either.
"DeSantis has been openly furious about Plaintiff's work because it exposes the ongoing falsification, suppression, and misleading that are salient features of the state's data reporting about COVID-19," the suit says. "He has not missed any opportunity to heap vilification and obloquy on Plaintiff in the public media."
Contact Jeff Schweers at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Rebekah Jones sues Florida Department of Law Enforcement for home raid