Former state Department of Health employee Rebekah Jones, who drew national attention when she said Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration manipulated COVID-19 data, has filed a whistleblower lawsuit to get her job back.
Jones filed her complaint in Leon County Circuit Civil court Monday, naming the department, Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo and Dr. Shamarial Roberson, the department’s former deputy secretary, as defendants. Besides reinstatement, she also seeks back wages, compensation for “emotional distress” and punitive damages against Roberson for firing her.
Jones in part alleges that her May 2020 firing violated her due process and free speech rights because she was “alerting the public that the pandemic was more rampant throughout the state than the state was telling the public.”
Ladapo was appointed more than a year later, in September 2021, to replace Scott Rivkees, “the embattled former Florida surgeon general who was kept out of the public eye for more than a year of the COVID-19 pandemic after he recommended people wear masks until a vaccine was developed,” the Tallahassee Democrat reported. Since then, Ladapo has inveighed against mask and vaccine mandates.
Jones claims in the complaint she was fired “in retaliation for complaining about the state's falsehoods minimizing the rampant pandemic numbers throughout the state, as well as suppressing the truth from the public.” Her allegation that the DeSantis administration manipulated COVID data remains unsubstantiated.
A complaint in a lawsuit tells one side of a story. Requests for comment are pending with a department spokesperson, an outside spokesperson for Roberson – now president of health and human services at Indelible Business Solutions – and Tallahassee attorney Rick Johnson, who is representing Jones. More recently, she unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat for a Florida Panhandle congressional seat, losing in the November election to Republican incumbent Matt Gaetz.
“The misrepresentations and falsifications Jones was ordered to implement, or tolerate and ignore, included COVID positivity data of rural counties, use of weekly rather than daily data to create misleading impressions, exclusion of out-of-state COVID-19 patients, and exclusion of in-state patients who did not provide an address,” the suit said.
“(R)eports were made to supervisors and/or other persons within plaintiff's chain of command who could remedy the violations. After reporting these matters, adverse action was taken against (her), including, without limitation, the baseless discharge from her position,” according to the suit.
Jones goes into detail in her complaint about how she was purportedly forced to suppress or misrepresent infection and hospitalization data when she was in charge of updating the Health Department’s online COVID dashboard, including massaging the data to back up DeSantis’ desire to “reopen” the state.
Officials, including Roberson, wanted certain data “excluded” so more counties could “meet the benchmark of being able to reopen,” Jones’ complaint said.
“Roberson said that Jones should ‘just change’ the numbers … to meet the criteria for those counties. Jones was astounded by the request to falsify data and said she could not do that. Roberson became frustrated and said, ‘I once had a data person who said to me, “you tell me what you want the numbers to be, and I'll make it happen.” ’ Jones was shocked that Roberson was telling her to manipulate data to intentionally mislead the public during a public health crisis, and again said that she could not do that,” the complaint said.
Jones currently under ‘deferred prosecution agreement’
Prosecutors in Tallahassee, where Jones lived when she worked for FDOH, last year entered into what is called a “deferred prosecution agreement” with her to resolve a computer-based crime against her.
The agreement says Jones must “admit her guilt,” perform 150 hours of community service and pay $20,000 in investigative costs to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in installments over the next two years. She also must “see a licensed mental health professional” for at least one hour per month.
If prosecutors are satisfied she has met the conditions, they will dismiss the case, the agreement says. Jones was charged in January 2021 with illegally accessing a state computer system in November 2020 and sending a message on an internal Department of Health multi-user messaging account. “It’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead. You know this is wrong. You don’t have to be part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it’s too late,” the message said. Jones has denied sending the message.
State police and other law enforcement raided her home, and video that she took from inside the home also made national headlines. The video posted by Jones shows officers brandishing guns and telling Jones to exit her Tallahassee home. The video also shows a law enforcement officer yelling at Jones’ husband to “come down the stairs now.” Jones can be heard saying in a high-pitched voice, “He just pointed a gun at my children,” who remained upstairs and out of view of the camera.
According to a statement provided by FDLE at the time, Jones “refused to come to the door for 20 minutes and hung up on agents. 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. Ms. Jones' family was upstairs when agents made entry into the home.”
“If DeSantis thought pointing a gun in my face was a good way to get me to shut up, he's about to learn just how wrong he was,” she tweeted after the incident. Her Twitter account was later suspended.