Will the raid on data analyst Rebekah Jones have a chilling effect?

Florida Police have done something rarely seen in the life of an ongoing investigation this week: They released a screenshot of an officer’s cell phone to show how many times the police attempted to call Rebekah Jones, the former state data analyst turned whistleblower.

The screenshot not only showed Jones’ personal cell phone number, but it showed that police had called four times between 8:38 a.m. and 8:43 a.m. Monday as officers waited at his door for more than 20 minutes before let them open the door and come in with their weapons drawn. ..

Making the call log public appeared to portray Jones’ reluctance to cooperate with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who wanted to seize her computers and other electronic equipment, as he said he had probable reasons to believe she was behind an anonymous message. sent to his former colleagues at the Florida Department of Health urging them to “be a hero” and talk about the coronavirus. FDLE did not file any charges.

Labor Lawyers saying that the state’s approach to Jones was excessive and aggressive, for a reason. Someone wanted to message any current or former government employee who might also be intending to speak.

“Their motive was 100% intimidation”, said Marie Maddox, a longtime Tallahassee lawyer who has represented state employees in cases against the government. “She has been at the top of the criticism regarding the deletion of data by DeSantis and its administration. … To If the government goes after someone as harshly as it did Rebekah, I think that will prevent other whistleblowers from coming forward.

Jones was fired in May after accusing Gov. Ron DeSantis’s administration of attempting to manipulate state data to downplay the severity of the coronavirus in Florida. At the time, the governor accused her of failing to follow the data analysis procedures established by the Department of Health.

“What she was doing was putting data on the portal that scientists didn’t believe was valid data,” DeSantis said in May. “So she didn’t listen to the people who were her superiors.”

Jones countered that she was fired for releasing more precise data showing COVID-19 infections in Florida and for refusing to manipulate that data to show infections were declining so DeSantis could justify easing pandemic restrictions and the reopening of businesses.

But Jones did not disappear after being fired. Funded at least in part by a GoFundMe campaign, she has become a frequent critic of the governor on national news broadcasts and has developed her own coronavirus database using the state’s own public data. She then expanded it to include COVID infections in schools and built a site that includes school data for other states.

As for the governor, communications director Fred Piccolo said DeSantis “had no knowledge of the investigation, and FDLE was unaware they were investigating Rebekah Jones until they tracked the IP address. “, the digital imprint of the anonymous message, at his home.

Jones tells his side

Jones constructs a different narrative of the raid and airs it on national television in prime-time shows.

“I don’t think they’re after me,” Jones told CNN’s Chris Cuomo in a research day television interview.

Jones said FDLE agents left his router and other electronic devices behind, but took two laptops, a computer tower, two cell phones and three USB drives – a list confirmed by the inventory of search warrants obtained by the Herald / Times.

“On my phone there are all the communications I have ever had with someone who works for the state who came to me in confidence and said something to me that might fire them or get in trouble. like this one, ”Jones told Cuomo. “And I just want to tell all these people right now, if he doesn’t already know, DeSantis will know soon enough that you spoke with me. So be careful.”

In another CNN interview on Wednesday night, Jones issued another warning to his contacts and added new information. She had “received a tip from someone the night before that something was going to happen soon,” she said. “[I] didn’t know what it was.

Maddox and other labor attorneys agree that the state is likely looking for more information to incriminate her or to prosecute others who have worked with her and whose information is discovered on her devices.

If they do, “they could be in trouble,” said Tim Jansen, a Tallahassee criminal defense attorney who has also represented whistleblowers. “It could be a crime if they pass on state information or protected information, and if not, they could certainly be in danger of losing their jobs if they see insubordination.”

The actions of the FDLE

Several legal experts interviewed by the Herald / Times said it was not unusual for police to disclose Jones’s address and cell phone number in investigative documents. They said executing a search warrant is often dangerous work and the police always carry guns but don’t always direct them like they did in this case, which Jones filmed and posted on Twitter .

Philip Sweeting, former deputy chief of police in Boca Raton, said the video offered no evidence that officers had acted inappropriately and that drawing guns was often standard procedure for executing search warrants. , but, he added, the video may not have captured everything that happened. .

“If it’s someone known to be violent, they’ve got their guns drawn and they’re ready,” Jansen said. “But this is a white collar business and sometimes, in white collar matters, these officers normally don’t have the ability to pull their guns out. When they have the opportunity, they take advantage of it.

In a state with broad whistleblower status and a city where the coronavirus has already had a chilling effect on those willing to grieve the state government, the viral video Jones posted will be another reason so that people remain silent.

In three days, FDLE, an agency normally reluctant to comment on an ongoing investigation, released several statements to the media, mistakenly suggesting it had “illegally hacked” into the state system and using increasingly strong language. like the story of the raid on Jones. house took place on a national stage.

Instead of issuing the search warrant, FDLE issued the more detailed search warrant affidavit that included directions to her home and a photo of her home, then released the screenshot of the phone calls from the agent to show Jones ignored them.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said Rick Johnson, a veteran employment lawyer who represents Jones in his whistleblower case before the Florida Human Relations Commission.

“They wanted her equipment and the confidential information she gathered, and they wanted to make an example of her and make sure no one else does.”

Public disclosure of personal address and mobile phone number prompted Jones to hire a private protection service, she told the Herald / Times.

Stephen Dobson, a Tallahassee criminal lawyer hired by Jones this week, said officers asked his 11-year-old son to give them a computer password.

“It’s just a terrible situation,” he said. “I was with FDLE for over 15 years and I could not have imagined that FDLE agents behave like this. It’s like using a sledgehammer to strike a gnat. They could have accomplished all of this by issuing a subpoena to him. “

“Inside information” compromised?

In her warrant, the state said the search of Jones’ home was necessary because investigators likely had reason to believe she was responsible for sending an unauthorized message to the Department of Justice messaging system. Health November 10.

Johnson said at least five former employees left or were fired from the Florida Department of Health and the Agency for Healthcare Administration and provided Jones with damaging information about the response from the Coronavirus state.

Jones said three USB drives confiscated by the state during the search of her home contained information from some of her former colleagues about the deletion of data in the administration, which she promised to keep confidential.

“This is inside information,” Johnson said, adding that they would ask the FDLE to have this information third-party reviewed and excluded. from investigation files.

If the state refuses, “we may have to go to court,” Dobson said. “I hope they realize the overbreadth they have carried out and take a step back.

While attorneys each said it was unusual for the state not to release the search warrant as it released the officer’s affidavit detailing the reason for the warrant, Jansen suggested it may be because FDLE knew this was going to be a high profile affair.

“If they knew this was going to be controversial and high profile, they might have decided to show what the probable cause was and avoid being charged with retaliation,” he said.

Maddox said the scan was “as wide as possible to find something to impute her character and cast doubt on what she reported.”

Dobson said Jones has “categorically stated that she had not done so ” and offers a window into what his defense will be.

“Even though she did, it’s someone who says, ‘Tell the truth’,” he said. “Don’t you think more people in government would say that? “

Mary Ellen Klas can be contacted at [email protected] and @MaryEllenKlas

This story was originally published 10 December 2020 2:56 pm.

Sean N. Ayres