81ºF

DeSantis avoids coronavirus data transparency questions to focus on revenge porn case

ORLANDO, Fla. – Rebekah Jones’ career as a geospatial data scientist with the Florida Department of Health began in late 2018 and ended recently. Her final e-mail raised questions about the transparency of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration on the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s a transparency that a group of news organizations questioned in Leon County Circuit Court in a lawsuit filed April 27 to demand that DeSantis release data on cases at prisons and long-term care facilities. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a similar lawsuit this week in Florida’s Second Circuit Court in Tallahassee.

On Wednesday, with Vice President Mike Pence standing by his side, DeSantis said Jones is not an epidemiologist and is not the chief architect of “our web portal.” He also focused reporters’ attention on Jones’ pending July 17 stalking case in Leon County criminal court over alleged revenge porn.

“I have asked the Department of Health to explain to me how someone would be allowed to be charged with that and continue on,” DeSantis said.

A few months after Jones, 30, pleaded not guilty to three stalking charges, two of which are closed, the DOH promoted her from Geographic Information System analyst to GIS manager. She was on supervised pretrial release when President Donald Trump’s coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, praised her work.

“This is how we have to inform the American public, and this is where the American public will develop confidence in each of their counties and local governments,” Birx said on April 20.

On Friday, Jones used the DOH electronic mailing list software application to release a statement that has fueled the already existing mistrust.

“As a word of caution, I would not expect the new team to continue the same level of accessibility and transparency that I made central to the process during the first two months," Jones wrote in her final message, according to Florida Today, a Brevard County newspaper. “After all, my commitment to both is largely (arguably entirely) the reason I am no longer managing it.”

Jones also sent an e-mail to a Tallahasse’s CBS affiliate reporter on Monday claiming she had been asked to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.”

Helen Ferre, DeSantis spokeswoman, told reporters Jones had been fired because she “exhibited a repeated course of insubordination” and made “unilateral decisions ... without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors."

Next month, Jones’ case will go to trial. Her accuser is a man she was dating while pursuing doctoral studies at Florida State University. On her website, she wrote her studies in journalism, geography and GIS were all to prepare her to serve as a scientist.

“I will always be dedicated to truth and justice,” Jones wrote, adding she wanted to help others to “understand the world a little bit better.”

THE TIMELINE

  • China’s first reported coronavirus death Jan. 11 was a 61-year-old customer of a market in Wuhan.
  • Johns Hopkins University launched a dashboard Jan. 22 using the Environmental Systems Research Institute’s ArcGIS software.
  • The World Health Organization declared the epidemic in China a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on Jan. 30.
  • Trump issues travel advisory on China on Feb. 2.
  • The U.S. reported the first coronavirus death Feb. 29 near Seattle.
  • On March 1, Florida announced two cases that still needed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s confirmation.
  • WHO declared a pandemic March 11.
  • Trump declared a national emergency on March 13.
  • Jones, the manager of the Florida DOH GIS team, helped to launch the interactive COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard on March 16. It mirrored the efficiency of the world’s renowned JHU dashboard by also using ArcGIS.
  • France imposes lockdown March 17. Britain imposes lockdown March 23. India imposes lockdown March 24.
  • CDC issues domestic travel advisory for New York March 28.
  • Jones, a Syracuse University and Louisiana State University alumna, was profiled for the SU March 31. “It’s rewarding to see people’s lives being made better or people becoming safer because of action I’m taking,” she said.
  • DeSantis issued his stay-at-home order April 1. By then, the Florida DOH dashboard showed there were nearly 8,000 cases and 101 coronavirus patients had died.
  • Group of news organizations, including the Tallahassee Democrat and the Miami Herald, file a lawsuit against the state April 27 in Leon County Circuit Court demanding the release of coronavirus data on coronavirus cases at assisted living facilities.
  • DeSantis announced his plan to reopen May 4. According to the Tampa Bay Times, DOH I.T. Director Craig Curry emailed Jones before 5 p.m.: “Per Dr. Blackmore, disable the ability to export the data to files from the dashboard immediately. We need to ensure that dates (date fields) in all objects match their counterpart on the PDF line list published.” Jones knew the PDF did not include the “Case Date” field and responded: “This is the wrong call.” Despite this, she complied.
  • Jones said she was reassigned May 5. It was a busy news day. The Miami Herald reported DeSantis denied community spread was taking place when DOH data showed people started showing symptoms in late December or January. The Miami Herald reporters used the “EventDate” field of the DOH data, which showed when people reported symptoms. The Palm Beach Post reported the “Person Cases” data showing there were cases in Florida as early as January vanished from the site.
  • On May 15, Jones sent out the “word of caution" about the Florida DOH dashboard. She also warned researchers and journalists: “They are making a lot of changes. I would advise being diligent in your respective uses of this data.” The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit in Florida’s Second Circuit Court in Tallahassee demanding the state release information on coronavirus cases involving inmates.
  • On May 19, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, a Democrat, sent a letter to DeSantis criticizing Jones May 18 firing. The Tampa Bay Times reported Jones said she was first offered a settlement and the option to resign in lieu of being fired, effective May 26. DeSantis later said Jones’ removal was “a non-issue.”
  • On May 20, DeSantis and Pence met in Orlando with tourism industry leaders. DeSantis discloses Jones has a pending criminal case in Lee County.

About the Authors: