Florida data analyst’s GoFundMe increases by $200,000 after police raid

TALLAHASSEE — State Police’s raid on the Tallahassee home of Florida data analyst Rebekah Jones helped her raise more than $200,000 in two days on a new GoFundMe account and reignited her national stardom .

Jones, who was fired from her role as COVID dashboard manager at the Florida Department of Health in May after accusing Governor Ron DeSantis’ administration of trying to manipulate state data to downplay the severity of the coronavirus, has spent much of the week appearing on national cable shows and speaking with his attorneys, which now includes Tallahassee criminal defense attorney Stephen Dobson.

Since May, Jones has held two fundraisers on GoFundMe and raised nearly $500,000 in donations, fueled by a Twitter account with more than 340,000 followers, including former Star Trek legend George Takei.

“Rebekah Jones was fired for refusing to manipulate COVID-19 data for FL State,” Takei wrote on Twitter Monday evening to her 3.2 million followers. “She started publishing her own dashboard. Then they raided her home. To support his work and give DeSantis and his Gestapo the middle finger, donate to his project here,” and include the link.

Police said they were investigating whether Jones had unauthorized access to a state emergency messaging system and sent a message to his former colleagues urging them to ‘be a hero’ and speak out about the coronavirus.

Florida officials denied her claims that they were suppressing data and accused her of insubordination and failing to consult with agency epidemiologists. But since her firing, she has gained a national reputation as a critic of DeSantis, creating her own scorecard using state coronavirus stats.

Jones maintains that she did not illegally enter a state emergency system, as Florida law enforcement claims.

She admitted she had access to the system when she was a Department of Health employee, but said she had not accessed it since her dismissal in May. And, she says she didn’t send the Nov. 10 message that urged employees to “speak up” about COVID-19 deaths.

Investigators say they have a lead

Although state investigators say the IP address — essentially a fingerprint — that was used to send the unauthorized message led them to Jones’ home in Tallahassee. Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said investigators subpoenaed Comcast to conclude it was Jones’ IP address.

Jones noted on her fundraising pages that the money was intended to help pay for computer equipment, bills, attorney fees or, in the event she was charged and jailed, financial assistance for his family.

“The money just keeps coming in,” said Rick Johnson, one of his lawyers. “I have people emailing me offering to donate large sums of money and buy his computers. I can’t scroll through my Facebook feed without seeing 10 long threads.

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Jones’ most recent fundraiser came on Tuesday, a day after law enforcement officers raided his home. As of Wednesday night, she had raised $201,645 from more than 5,000 donors. Its fundraising goal is $1 million and contributions range from $5 to $10,000.

In an interview Wednesday, Jones said she set a fundraising goal of $1 million because she was facing heavy legal costs, including $50,000 to retain Dobson.

She said Dobson said her legal proceedings could “go on for years” and she said the money was intended to cover attorney fees, potential bail if she ends up facing charges, as well than other costs.

“If the governor can invent something to lock me up, my family will need help,” Jones wrote on the fundraising page on Tuesday.

Jones said the money collected from this account will also go to a new computer. An inventory of search warrants obtained by the Schedules / Announcement Wednesday shows police confiscated two laptops, two smart phones, three USB drives, two SD cards and an HP tower when they searched his home.

More than one account

Jones also raised $249,441 through a separate GoFundMe account set up in late May. She said the money collected from that account was created to help her pay her bills after she was fired for “refusing to manipulate COVID-19 data for Florida’s plan to prematurely reopen the state. “.

“We have to unmix our pots of money to make sure all the rules are followed correctly, all taxes are paid correctly, etc., etc.,” Jones noted at the May fundraiser.

In addition to fundraisers, Jones accepts checks from supporters. She asks them to mail the checks to a PO box in Tallahassee that also serves as the mailing address for her business, Florida COVID Action LLC. The company was formed in July and lists her and her husband, Jacob Romer, as the sole directors. It is impossible to know how much money she received in checks.

The company’s website says it’s paid for “entirely through crowdsourcing from the public.”

“Your support allows us to purchase the hardware, software and services needed to keep our site up and running and to pay our Chief Founder for her 12-hour shifts, every day of the week,” the website says. .

Cybersecurity experts told the Schedules / Announcement that the state’s messaging platform had lax security measures — with employees all using the same username and password to access it — that a breach was almost certain to occur.

Still, unauthorized access — even with an old password — could potentially be charged with a crime, said Stewart Baker, former general counsel for the National Security Agency.

Johnson, Jones’ attorney, said Jones has not been charged with any crime and that Dobson is working to protect his confidential conversations with his attorneys and former colleagues from use by the state.

He said the lax security would make it difficult for the state to suggest it was a breach.

“She could have come in if she wanted to,” he said. “Because once you have access to it, you never lose it. So they can’t even blame her because with their permission she had access to it even after she left.

The Department of Health did not respond to questions about how often passwords are changed to access the system. Jones said the password to access the cross-platform system is changed every month and “would be written on a whiteboard.”

Wasserman Schultz wants an investigation

Meanwhile, Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said she wants Congress to investigate allegations of data hiding and what she called DeSantis’ “abuse of power” in her treatment of Jones. .

“Governor. DeSantis’ mishandling of the coronavirus in Florida has made him a global laughing stock and has caused so much unnecessary suffering and death in our state,’ Wasserman Schultz wrote in a statement. “Now beyond d ‘simple fatal incompetence, it appears he chose to abuse Florida’s law enforcement and judicial systems to persecute Rebekah Jones, a scientist who dared to criticize his oft-maligned and suspect COVID-19 data.’

She added that, “given the coy complicity and lack of oversight by the Republican-controlled Legislature, the governor’s abuse of power must be investigated immediately by inspectors. competent Florida generals”.

A spokeswoman for Wasserman Schultz said she is exploring various investigative options at the federal level, such as agencies whose inspectors general oversee state COVID funds or congressional committees that provide oversight.

“Our state is in a public health emergency,” Wasserman Schultz said. “And rather than using his executive power to protect Floridians, DeSantis is abusing it to attack scientists who dare to raise the alarm over Florida’s inept and dangerous response and apparent manipulation of data. It’s not leadership; it is autocratic repression.

Sean N. Ayres