Health and Science

Florida authorities raid home of ex-official who said she was ousted over coronavirus data

Tim Stelloh
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In this photo illustration the Florida's COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard is seen displayed on a computer screen. Rebekah Jones, the woman who created and ran Florida's online coronavirus data site, was removed from her job by May 5, 2020 for resisting efforts by the state Department of Health to make the data harder to access for the public, researchers and the media.
Paul Hennessy | AP

Authorities in Florida on Monday raided the home of Rebekah Jones, a former state official who has said she was ousted this year for refusing to censor the state's coronavirus data.

In a search warrant, an investigator with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said a person at Jones' home who was using her email address illegally gained access to a state-run communications platform and sent a group text Nov. 10 telling people that it was "time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead."

"You know this is wrong," the text said, according to the warrant. "You don't have to be part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it's too late."

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The investigator, Noel Pratts, said the agents raided Jones' home in Tallahassee in search of computer hardware and electronics.

According to the warrant, the state Health Department uses the platform, ReadyOp, for emergency management.

Jones led the effort to establish a public information portal that listed the numbers of coronavirus deaths and cases in the state. In May, she told WPEC-TV of West Palm Beach that her exit from the Health Department was "not voluntary" and that it happened after she refused to "manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen."

The Health Department did not comment on Jones' firing.

In a message Monday, Jones denied sending the Nov. 10 text.

"Pretty sure if I was gonna go through the trouble of learning how to hack, then hacking DOH of all places, I'd be damn sure to get the death count right," she said, saying the accurate death toll on Nov. 10 was 17,460.

Jones posted video of the raid Monday and said state police "pointed a gun in my face."

"They pointed guns at my kids," she said.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen said that agents had "knocked and called" Jones, but she refused to come to the door for 20 minutes and hung up on them.

Agents then "entered the home in accordance with normal protocols and seized several devices that will be forensically analyzed," he said in a statement.

"At no time were weapons pointed at anyone in the home," the statement added.

Jones said the agents seized evidence of "corruption at the state level," and she blamed the raid on Gov. Ron DeSantis.

"This is what happens to scientists who do their job honestly," she said. "This is what happens to people who speak truth to power."

DeSantis' office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Gretl Plessinger, earlier said Jones refused to answer the door when agents knocked and hung up when they called her.

"After several attempts and verbal notifications that law enforcement officers were there to serve a legal search warrant, Ms. Jones eventually came to the door and allowed agents to enter," Plessinger said. "Ms. Jones' family was upstairs when agents made entry into the home."