Ousted Florida scientist Rebekah Jones’ whistleblower complaint takes aim at DeSantis
Florida’s former top coronavirus data expert filed a whistleblower complaint Thursday against the Health Department, accusing the agency of firing her in retaliation for refusing to manipulate data to support the push to reopen Florida after months of quarantine.
The complaint by former agency data manager Rebekah Jones targets Gov. Ron DeSantis directly.
“These efforts to falsify the numbers are a pattern and practice in Florida government that goes on to this day,” Jones’ Tallahassee attorney, Rick Johnson, said in a statement. ”(Gov.) Ron DeSantis has routinely given false numbers to the press. His underlings at (the Health Department) follow his example and his direction.”
In a series of public accusations, Jones has maintained that Health Department officials, including Deputy Secretary Shamarial Roberson, pressured her to misrepresent COVID-19 statistics to make the disease look less prevalent to justify reopening the economy in early May.
Jones asked to be returned to her job with back pay and other compensation, Johnson said.
The complaint, filed with the Florida Commission on Human Relations, is confidential.
Jones declined to comment beyond her lawyer’s statement. Health Department spokesman Alberto Moscoso did not return a request for comment.
Jones has said her superiors at the Health Department asked her in late April to falsify statistics, such as what percentage of coronavirus tests showed positive results. DeSantis wanted the state’s public-facing website to show that the percentage of positive tests over two weeks were below 10 percent even if the numbers were higher, she said.
When Jones refused, she was removed on May 6 from her duties managing the state’s COVID-19 dashboard that reports data such as the number of cases, deaths, positive tests and negative tests statewide and in each county, by age group and by ZIP code.
Florida’s dashboard, made and maintained by Jones after the pandemic broke out in March, earned praise nationwide, including from Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator.
As the Health Department’s geographic information science manager, Jones said she worked 12-hour days for nearly two months, maintaining the dashboard and the complex data powering it.
Since she has left, the dashboard powered by ArcGIS has been disabled several times, including at least one span of several days.
After nearly two weeks on leave, when she still worked with Health Department staff to maintain and fix the dashboard, Jones contacted a supervisor for advice on filing a whistleblower complaint. Shortly afterward, on May 18, the state fired her. That’s the same day DeSantis allowed all Florida’s counties to enter Phase 1 of reopening, a process that began May 4.
DeSantis has said she was fired because “she didn’t listen to the people who were her superiors.”
Since then, Jones has made her own dashboard at FloridaCOVIDAction.com, compiling publicly available data published by the state but digitally scattered around on web pages that are hard for many people to find and understand. She has received $210,000 from donations through GoFundMe to support her work on the site.
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.