Florida COVID data critic reaches agreement on felony charge

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A fired Florida health department data manager charged with illegally accessing state computers after she publicly accused officials of wanting to make COVID-19 statistics look less dire has reached an agreement with prosecutors that should result in the case being dropped.

Rebekah Jones, who helped design the state’s coronavirus website, signed an agreement with prosecutors admitting guilt to a charge of illegally accessing the state’s computer system and requiring her to pay $20,000 to cover the investigation’s costs, perform 150 hours of community service and see a mental health counselor monthly. If she completes those requirements, the charge will be dropped within two years. The agreement was filed late last week at Tallahassee’s circuit court.

Jones, who lost a bid for Congress last month, was charged in January 2021 with one count of offenses against users of computers, computer systems, computer networks and electronic devices. Investigators say that in late 2020, months after she was fired, Jones illegally accessed a state emergency-alert messaging system known as ReadyOp.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said Jones downloaded and saved confidential data and sent a message to 1,750 state employees that urged them to “speak up before another 17,000 people are dead” — the number of Floridians who had died of COVID-19 by that point.

“You know this is wrong. You don’t have to be a part of this. Be a hero,” the message said.

A month before she was charged, armed FDLE agents raided her home and seized her computers.

Prosecutor Georgia Cappleman said Monday that Jones’ charge was “relatively minor” and that the agreement was one “everyone can live with.”

“We try to resolve most cases outside of trial,” she said. If convicted at trial, Jones would have faced up to five years in prison, though any significant time behind bars would have been unlikely.

Jones, who has denied sending the message, posted a lengthy statement criticizing her plea agreement, saying “no justice would be served by continuing the charade.” She accused Gov. Ron DeSantis of personally ordering the raid, and said agents pointed guns at her two young children.

“In a judicial system adversarial to empathy, truth and human decency, I win a total dismissal — for a fee,” she wrote. “I continue to remind myself to be grateful. Certainly this is not the outcome DeSantis and his thugs wanted. And while an agreement to dismiss the charges isn’t the outright dismissal I wanted, it’s a dismissal none-the-less.”

The governor’s press office did not immediately respond to a phone call and email seeking comment.

Jones, 33, received national attention in early 2020 when she sowed doubt about the information being reported by the state when Florida was an epicenter of the pandemic.

She publicly suggested that she pushed back when health department managers wanted her to manipulate information to paint a rosier picture as DeSantis pushed to reopen Florida businesses earlier than most other states and keep restrictions light in small, rural counties.

DeSantis, a possible 2024 Republican presidential candidate, raised his national profile by criticizing COVID lockdowns, most mask wearing and hiring a health department chief who is skeptical of coronavirus vaccines.

Health department officials denied Jones’ allegations and she was fired for violating regulations barring employees from making public statements without permission. About six months later, the computer message was sent, starting the investigation that led to her arrest.

Jones was the Democratic challenger to Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz last month. In the heavily GOP district, Gaetz won by a 2-to-1 margin.

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