The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP lawyer appointed by Florida governor resigns state panel in protest over raid on ousted data scientist’s home

Florida police officers raided the home of ousted health department data scientist Rebekah Jones on Dec. 7. (Video: Rebekah Jones)

A Republican lawyer resigned Tuesday from a Florida judicial panel to object to police raiding the home of a data scientist who has alleged the state health department ousted her for resisting unethical pandemic-related requests.

Ron Filipkowski, who served on a nominating commission for the state’s 12th Circuit, wrote in a pointed resignation letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis’s general counsel that he considered the search warrant executed on Rebekah Jones’s home “unconscionable.” He also said it was indicative of the state’s “reckless and irresponsible” handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It just seems like it’s not really about any kind of criminal investigation,” Filipkowski told The Washington Post. “It’s about intimidation of her and sending a message to people currently working in state government that, ‘This could be you.’ ”

The state’s public-facing portal of pandemic data has been under scrutiny since earlier this year, when Jones, a former data scientist at the Florida Department of Health, was fired and began trading public accusations with the agency. She alleged that she was asked to undercount infections and overcount the number of people tested, while state officials said she had been repeatedly insubordinate.

Florida police raid house of fired data scientist who alleged state manipulated covid-19 stats

Jones launched her own data portal in June, advertising it as an independent alternative to the state dashboard. State police seized her computer, phone and other hardware during the raid Monday, in what she says is an attempt to silence her work.

An affidavit attached to the search warrant alleges that Jones used unchanged log-in credentials to gain unauthorized access last month to a health department communication platform and sent a message to about 1,750 people, urging them to speak out against the department’s pandemic response.

Jones has denied the accusation and has not been criminally charged. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the state attorney for the region encompassing Leon County did not respond to a question about whether she was likely to face charges.

Filipkowski submitted his resignation after reviewing the search warrant affidavit, ending a decade of service on the volunteer commission to which he was appointed by DeSantis (R) and then-Gov. Rick Scott (R). Filipkowski, a Marine veteran and former state and federal prosecutor, also has a private criminal law practice.

“The recent events regarding public access to truthful data on the pandemic, and the specific treatment of Rebekah Jones, has made the issue a legal one rather than just medical,” he wrote in the letter. ” … I no longer wish to serve the current government of Florida in any capacity.”

He added that he would regard Jones as a hero if the allegations were true and that he did not believe DeSantis spokesman Fred Piccolo’s contention that the governor was unaware of the raid in advance.

Florida fired its coronavirus data scientist. Now she’s publishing the statistics on her own.

Filipkowski, who promoted the candidacy of now President-elect Joe Biden, said he received no response to his letter from the governor’s office. Representatives of DeSantis did not respond to questions Wednesday about whether they accepted Filipkowski’s resignation or had a response to his criticisms.

DeSantis’s handling of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 1 million people in Florida and killed nearly 20,000, had long concerned Filipkowski. The state’s pandemic rules, among the loosest in the country, include allowing bars and restaurants to operate at full capacity.

But the raid on Jones’s home was the last straw for Filipkowski, who said he thought it was an aggressive response to the alleged breach and that its broad sweep was a thinly veiled attempt to determine which state employees were in touch with Jones and intimidate them into silence.

He said he believed Jones’s situation would be covered by Florida’s legal “necessity” doctrine, which protects people who commit a crime to prevent a more serious danger.

“If that’s a crime, there’s something wrong,” Filipkowski said of Jones allegedly messaging state employees. “The computer hacking statute in Florida was meant to prevent people from stealing other people’s identity, crashing their servers — not for sending an email urging people to tell the truth.”

The search warrant was signed by Judge Joshua Hawkes, whom DeSantis appointed in September, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Jones has continued to speak out on her own behalf since the raid, telling CNN on Wednesday that she was concerned officials would use the electronic devices they seized from her to identify state employees leaking information to her as whistleblowers.

“DeSantis needs to worry less about what I’m writing about and more about the people who are sick and dying in his state,” she said. “And doing this to me will not stop me from reporting the data, ever.”

Jones has encountered law enforcement before. She faces a pending misdemeanor charge of cyberstalking a former romantic partner in 2019, to which she has pleaded not guilty, court records show. Another cyberstalking charge and a sexual cyber-harassment charge stemming from the same incident were dropped. Previous charges against her of criminal mischief, trespassing, robbery and contempt of court for violating a domestic violence injunction were also dropped.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

End of the public health emergency: The Biden administration ended the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic on May 11, just days after WHO said it would no longer classify the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency. Here’s what the end of the covid public health emergency means for you.

Tracking covid cases, deaths: Covid-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States last year with covid deaths dropping 47 percent between 2021 and 2022. See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world.

The latest on coronavirus boosters: The FDA cleared the way for people who are at least 65 or immune-compromised to receive a second updated booster shot for the coronavirus. Here’s who should get the second covid booster and when.

New covid variant: A new coronavirus subvariant, XBB. 1.16, has been designated as a “variant under monitoring” by the World Health Organization. The latest omicron offshoot is particularly prevalent in India. Here’s what you need to know about Arcturus.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.