Insight from Florida Rep. Ross Spano, Republican member of the House Small Business Committee.
One of the people entering data into Florida’s coronavirus website was fired in a dispute over what information should be made public and was allegedly, according to a report in The Daily Mail, also fired from Florida State University in 2017 for having an affair with a student — and later was charged with cyberstalking.
Rebekah Jones, who says she helped design the site, said she was fired because she would not manually change data to support Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to begin the reopening of the state. DeSantis denied that, saying Jones was fired for insubordination and should never have been hired because she is being investigated for cyberstalking. He said she was not one of the site’s designers but someone who entered data.
Rebekah Jones (Leon County Sheriff’s Office).
The Daily Mail reported Jones was charged with three counts of cyberstalking her student Garrett Sweeterman, then 21, who filed a restraining order against her.
She allegedly created a “revenge porn” website called SurvivingGarrett and sent the link to online boards focusing on feminism and the #metoo movement.
Jones also wrote a 342-page manifesto with a narrative of her affair with Sweeterman; she posted online at least 60 pages, including screen grabs of their sexts.
In the manifesto, she said she was impregnated by Sweeterman: she gave birth to a girl in mid-2018, and she has an 8-year-old son with her husband.
Jones, whose dismissal as an information systems manager with the Florida Department of Health was first reported by Florida Today, could not be reached for comment.
Robert A. Morris, Jones’ lawyer in the revenge porn case, emailed a statement to The Daily Mail.
“It is unfortunate that Ms. Jones has been thrust into this spotlight,” he wrote. “I am certain that appropriate investigation and inquiry from oversight committees and other investigative agencies will reveal what has happened and why it has happened. Ms. Jones has a sound academic history. Her prior personal history and challenges should not be mixed with the present circumstance. Ms. Jones is working hard to resolve personal and private legal issues that are completely unrelated to her awkward thrust into the national media through no choice of her own.”
Sweeterman’s lawyer also emailed a statement to The Daily Mail.
“Mr. Sweeterman has nothing to do with the current situation between the Florida Department of Health and Ms. Jones, and does not know anything about it,” Tiffany Cruz wrote in an email. “In 2019, Ms. Jones published a number of allegations about Mr. Sweeterman, from the time he was her student at FSU. Ms. Jones filed a number of legal actions against him, which the court records will show were rightly dismissed by her and the court.”
Jones has a PhD in geography from Florida State University, a masters in geography and mass communication from Louisiana State University, and a B.A. from Syracuse in geography and journalism, according to a resume posted on FSU’s website.
FSU could not be reached for comment.
Jones had announced in an email to researchers she was reassigned from her duties overseeing an online dashboard that provides daily snapshots of Florida’s COVID-19 infections, testing and deaths.
In the email she sent to researchers and others, Jones said that as of May 5 she was no longer in charge of the dashboard and said she would not expect “the same level of accessibility and transparency” in the data presented on the dashboard, adding that her “commitment to both is largely (arguably entirely) the reason I am no longer managing it.”
Jones was more pointed in an email to a West Palm Beach television station WPEC when she said she was removed from her role because she would not “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.” It was unclear what data she was asked to change.
Afterward, the governor’s spokeswoman, Helen Ferre, said in an email that Jones had “exhibited a repeated course of insubordination,” asserting that Jones had made “unilateral decisions to modify the Department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors.”
Rebekah Jones (Leon County Sheriff’s Office).
The dashboard debuted on March 16, providing a detailed glimpse of where coronavirus has hit, how many Floridians have tested positive for the infection, how many have been hospitalized and how many people have died. Over the weeks, new information was added, including the number of infections by ZIP codes.
After some prodding by the news media, the state also began releasing data on nursing homes and prisons, although it has declined to disclose some information that is now part of public records lawsuits filed by several news media companies.
In the early weeks of the outbreak, health officials cited privacy issues in declining to identify where infections were occurring only to reverse themselves when public concern over the outbreak grew and quickly became a political issue.