A prominent critic of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Covid response has been ‘unfounded’ and “unfounded” claims state health officials fired her for refusing to present manipulated data online, according to an inspector general report obtained by NBC News on Thursday.
The Florida Department of Health’s inspector general’s 27-page report said it found “insufficient evidence.” or no evidence to back Rebekah Jones’ allegations that she was asked to falsify Covid positivity rates or misrepresent them on the state’s dashboard she helped design. The report also exonerated officials accused by Jones of wrongdoing for removing a section of data from the site to ensure private health information was not released publicly.
The independent report paints a portrait of a worker who failed to understand public health policy or the importance of epidemiological data, lacked senior access to critical information and made claims that made professional health officials “skeptical”.
The report didn’t examine one of Jones’ most explosive claims: that Florida intentionally hid deaths to make the pandemic appear less deadly.
This conspiracy theory that Jones alternately promoted and revoked on Twitter before her account was banned for violating the platform’s terms of service has remained on social media for more than a year despite a lack of evidence. The Florida Democrat, who was then leading the state’s emergency response, lamented how Jones was spreading “disinformation.” Independent epidemiologists say the claim is unfounded.
Jones, who turned her Twitter and media fame into successful fundraisers, is now a Democratic congressional candidate challenging Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz in Florida’s Panhandle, where she set out to run against him.
Jones was widely hailed as a “whistleblower” after the Department of Health’s inspector general last year found that she met the minimum criteria for whistleblower protection under state law in conducting this investigation, which now provides no substantiation for her claims of improper Termination found in May 2020.
But her attorney, Rick Johnson, claims his client is still a “whistleblower” and said she will continue to pursue her wrongful termination claim in court. He said the investigation report regulates the actions of state employees and does not affect their rights or ability to sue in court for wrongful dismissal.
“It’s simple: she was fired for refusing to tamper with Covid data,” Johnson said, noting that his client submitted a lengthy rebuttal to the department earlier this year when it released its first confidential findings.
Johnson also accused the Florida Commission on Human Relations, which must review her request for wrongful termination before going to court, of slowing the case down for political reasons as DeSantis runs for a second term this November.
“They won’t do anything until after the election,” Johnson said.
A DeSantis spokeswoman, Taryn Fenske, said the allegation was “the latest absurd claim by a discredited conspiracy theorist.”
Another DeSantis spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, has had a long feud with Jones after writing an article for conservative publication Human Events in 2021 titled “The ‘Florida Covid-19 Whistleblower’ Saga Is a Big Lie.” DeSantis hired Pushaw shortly after the article appeared.
In response, Jones filed an injunction against Pushaw and then falsely claimed Pushaw violated it.
Jones faces charges of allegedly accessing and downloading confidential health department data following her firing for disobedience. She also has a misdemeanor stalking charge related to an affair she had with a former student, which led to her being fired as a teacher at Florida State University.
As Jones rose to fame and notoriety in the news media in 2020, DeSantis balked at her allegations and noted her resignation from FSU.
“I asked the Department of Health and Human Services to explain how someone would be allowed to be charged for this and move on,” DeSantis told reporters. “I have a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment.”
DeSantis also criticized reporters for calling Jones a “data scientist” because she worked as a website and dashboard designer for the state. Jones is not an epidemiologist.
However, under DeSantis, the state was routinely slow to deal with requests for public records and hid some data in the early months of the pandemic. DeSantis has also been criticized for reopening the state, despite epidemiologists urging a slower pace.
Florida was one of the first states to widen open again in 2020, making DeSantis a lightning rod for controversy that catapulted him onto the national stage — along with Jones’ allegations, which he says critics have echoed because “they did it.” have to try to find a boogeyman. Maybe black helicopters are circling around the Ministry of Health. If you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I would like to sell you.”
After Florida reopened in the summer of 2020, cases and deaths skyrocketed. But in early winter 2021, Florida’s death rate was mid-range, among states like New York but higher than California. Since the introduction of vaccines, Florida has had a higher death rate than many other states, which officials attribute to its large elderly population and critics attribute to widespread anti-vaccination attitudes, particularly among conservatives.
The inspector general’s report, which interviewed 17 current and former Health Department officials, was sparked by Jones when she filed her wrongful termination complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations in July 2020, alleging alleged misconduct by Health Department officials. The commission referred the allegations of official misconduct to the state’s inspector general in January 2021, who then referred them to the department’s inspector general, who must investigate such allegations to determine their credibility.
The inspector general examined four separate claims by Jones, three relating to Covid positivity rates and one relating to downloadable datasets detailing individual Covid cases.
Aside from the four specific allegations of official misconduct, the report said other complaints she had made regarding Florida’s Covid response “contradict the body of information obtained during the OIG investigation.”
The main targets of Jones’ allegations – Dr. Shamarial Roberson, Dr. Carina Blackmore and Courtney Coppola – all dismissed allegations that Jones or staff were ordered to falsify Covid positivity rates online to justify the state’s reopening. Colleagues of Jones said she didn’t know what she was talking about and were “skeptical” of her claims, the report said.
“The complainant was not an epidemiologist and did not have system access to the underlying COVID-19 data in Merlin and ESSENCE,” the report said, citing the state’s limited health data systems.
Officials said there would be no point in faking dates online anyway because, ethics aside, they would have been spotted immediately as the world was watching Florida.
“If the complainant or others [Department of Health] If staff had falsified COVID-19 data on the dashboard, then the dashboard could not have matched the data in the corresponding final daily report,” the report said. “Such a discrepancy would have been apparent through [Bureau of Epidemiology] Employees performing data quality assurance, as well as other parties, both inside and outside the DOH, including but not limited to [County Health Departments]Local government, researchers, press/media and the general public.”
In two of those cases, investigators said there was insufficient evidence to support their claims, noting that their claims were “baseless.”
The report also found that Jones made an “unsubstantiated” claim that the state had nefariously changed its Covid positivity calculation. But the experts interviewed said they did not understand the wording, and Jones misread their facts, the report said.
“DOH never calculated the positivity rates in the manner claimed by the complainant,” the report said. “Based on an analysis of the available evidence, the alleged conduct as described by the complainant did not occur.”
It wasn’t the only time Jones misrepresented dates. At the beginning of the pandemic, she launched a Twitter attack on former University of Florida epidemiologist Natalie Dean for correctly pointing out that Jones didn’t understand the difference between antigen and antibody tests.
Jones also devastated University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi on Twitter – temporarily banning him from the platform over her followers’ attacks – when, like Dean, he dismissed Jones’ claims that Florida was hiding dates of deaths from Covid.
“The popular notion that the Florida Department of Health and Human Services is ‘cooking the books’ over COVID data is unsupported and unsupported,” Dean wrote in a March 2021 tweet. “If we’re going to have a real conversation about Florida, we have to people pass this.”