A state investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing related to the explosive allegations by Florida’s former coronavirus data expert, who two years ago accused top state health officials of firing her for refusing to manipulate COVID-19 data, to support the push to reopen Florida after months of quarantine.
Specific allegations by the agency’s former data manager Rebekah Jones, who garnered national media attention with her sensational allegations against the DeSantis administration, were either “baseless.” This means there was insufficient evidence to prove or disprove them, or ‘unfounded’, meaning the alleged conduct was found not to have taken place.
The investigation was conducted by the Florida Department of Health’s Chief Inspector General’s Office, Michael J. Bennett, who investigates whistleblower complaints. Bennett reports to Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office.
The OIG report supports the DeSantis administration, which said there were no attempts to falsify the data the governor relied on to announce the reopening of the state in April 2020 after a brief COVID-19 statewide lockdown economy to start.
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Jones was fired a month later after saying she refused to falsify virus data. When they went public, DeSantis attacked Jones for their professional qualifications and portrayed them as disruptive employees and criminals.
Jones is now a Democratic nominee for Congress, running to unseat US Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. Jones said Friday that she has not yet received a copy of the final OIG report.
She plans to sue the state in federal court for wrongful dismissal after the state investigation concludes.
“It’s a life-defining experience,” Jones said of her confrontation with the DeSantis administration over the COVID-19 data.
“It’s not something I’ll ever forget or really get over every time… In a way, it’s a relief to be over it after two years.”
She added, “I don’t think it was ever realistic that they would come out and say, ‘Yeah, everything she said is true, we’re sorry, my mistake.'”
DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske declined further comment, saying, “The report speaks for itself.”
The March 9, 2022 OIG results were first reported by NBC News late Thursday afternoon. The 27-page report and Jones’ 70-page rebuttal were obtained from USA Today Network-Florida.
Jones, who was granted whistleblower status to pursue her charges, filed the original complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Rights on July 16, 2020. It was later forwarded to the OIG.
Investigators were looking into four allegations that Jones made against senior Health Department officials just months after the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.
Those named were Courtney Coppola, the agency’s former chief of staff; dr Shamarial Roberson, former assistant secretary; Carina Blackmore, director of the agency’s medical and health service in the Division of Disease Control and Health Protection; and Patrick “Scott” Pritchard, who worked in the Office of Communicable Diseases, which is part of the Department of Disease Control and Health.
Investigators said Jones’ claim that Roberson directed her and other DOH employees to falsify the COVID-19 positivity rates as “unfounded.” A second claim that Coppola “pressured” her to falsify the COVID-19 positivity rates was also deemed “unfounded.” A third claim that Roberson and Dr. Blackmore told them the misrepresentation of the agency’s COVID-19 data and monitoring dashboard was “unfounded.”
Regarding the fourth allegation, OIG investigators found that Dr. Roberson, Dr. Blackmore and Pritchard Jones had directed to restrict access to underlying data supporting what appeared on the state’s COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard. But the action was “not found to violate the law
any government directive.”
Jones, whose 70-page rebuttal was attached to the OIG’s 27-page report, extensively disputed the OIG’s findings point by point, writing that “directors of several state agencies and administrators within the DOH (Agency for Health Care Administration) AHCA (Agency for Health Care Administration ) and DEM (Division of Emergency Management) have expressed frustration and even concern at how the pandemic has been handled and as a result feared telling the truth.
“Testimonies from other state officials show that the full weight and power of the Florida state government was used to target me for my continued speaking out and reporting COVID-19 data, including the governor himself.” , she told the OIG.
Jones also provided evidence of emails and other communications, including a text message exchange with Wesley Payne, then the Department of Health’s chief of internal communications, who had approached the OIG with “similar complaints” about misleading COVID-19 data.
Jones’ attorney, Rick Johnson, told NBC News that his client would go to court to argue that she was wrongfully fired from her job. “It’s simple: she was fired for refusing to tamper with Covid data,” Johnson told NBC.
Jones was fired as manager of geographic information systems for the Florida Health Department in May 2020 after she publicly accused state officials of asking her to unfairly tamper with COVID-19 data, which the government had denied from the start.
She then launched her own dashboard tracking cases in June, repeatedly accusing the DeSantis administration of falsifying data to make Florida look better.
At one point, Jones said her office directed her former colleagues to “change the numbers and slowly delete deaths and cases so it looks like Florida is going to improve next week.”
Pressing for evidence, she pointed out that the state’s official tally did not include out-of-state residents dying in Florida from COVID-19 — although the number in question was described as “deaths among Florida residents.”
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The allegations she has leveled against the DeSantis administration and top state health officials have thrust her into the national media spotlight. She has appeared on CNN, CBS News, MSNBC and other major television networks, sounding the alarm about the Florida government’s handling of the pandemic.
Florida Democrats echoed Jones’ allegations. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, now running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, has demanded that Jones be allowed to speak for himself before the Florida cabinet at its May 2020 meeting. This didn’t happen.
More controversy and intrigue ensued in December 2020, when Jones released video of armed agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement searching her home in Tallahassee.
State investigators, executing a search warrant, said they likely had reason to believe Jones was behind an anonymous message sent last November to Jones’ former health department colleagues via the ReadyOps system for emergency operations. The investigation is pending.
Jones has other legal issues. She faces a pending charge of cyberstalking ahead of her work on COVID-19, which many of Jones’ critics have used to attack her credibility.
The issue arose from a relationship Jones had with a college student in 2017 while Jones was a graduate student at Florida State University.
The incident was described in a more than 300-page document that Jones wrote and posted online, which was filed in her court case.
Jones lost her job as a research assistant at FSU over the affair, and her online post about the relationship led to a stalking charge. When she was hired by the state health department in 2019, her employment records noted the pending charges, but she was cleared for employment.
Jones, now based in the panhandle city of Navarre, is running in the Aug. 23 Democratic primary in the heavily Republican First District, represented since 2017 by Gaetz, a close ally of former President Trump.
Sergio Bustos is the business/political editor for Florida’s Gannett/USA Today Network. He lives in South Florida. Email: [email protected]
John Kennedy is a reporter for the Capital Bureau, USA Today Network-Florida. He can be reached at [email protected], 850-321-0572 or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport