A claim by data expert Rebekah Jones that her bosses at the Florida Department of Health intentionally falsified COVID case data as Gov. Ron DeSantis was attempting to reopen the state is unfounded, according to an internal inspector general’s report conducted by her former agency.
“Based upon an analysis of the available evidence, the alleged conduct, as described by the complainant, did not occur,” the report said, referring to that allegation in Jones’ whistleblower complaint.
Two other allegations by Jones, that directives were issued by higher-ups to falsify COVID-19 positivity rates, were deemed “unsubstantiated” because “based upon an analysis of the available evidence, there is insufficient evidence to clearly prove or disprove the alleged conduct.”
The report, released this week, does acknowledge that the evidence supports Jones’ separate claim that two of the agency’s top doctors ordered Jones and others to restrict public access to COVID case data after the Miami Herald asked a question about it. However, the report indicates the data was later restored after concerns about exposing private information were allayed.
Removing the data from public access did not violate “any governing directive,” the report said, so the officials she accused of wrongdoing were “exonerated.”
Jones, who was responsible for maintaining the COVID-19 data dashboard for the Florida Department of Health, was fired in May 2020 after going public with her concerns.
At the heart of Jones’ claim was that the data collected by epidemiologists was accurate and adequate, but the information was not being communicated to the public in the midst of a public health crisis.
Jones did not submit to an interview by IG investigators but answered the inspector general’s questions in writing and provided the agency with a 530-page written rebuttal to the report’s preliminary findings.
“If ordering a state employee to hide data during a crisis for the sole purpose of the public and media to not hold them accountable is not against the policy or rule, then it needs to be,’’ she told the Miami Herald.
The 27-page IG investigation, which involved interviewing 13 current and former DOH officials and contractors, took place between January 2021 and March 2022. It included no policy recommendations.
Asked to comment on whether the report would lead to any changes in providing access to public information during a public health emergency, both Jeremy Redfern, chief public information officer for DOH, and the governor’s communications director, Taryn Fenske, replied: “The report speaks for itself.”
At the end of her tenure, Jones became a controversial public figure, attacked by DeSantis by name. For some time afterward, she became a frequent guest on cable news outlets. She also became an aggressive Twitter combatant until her account was suspended in June 2021 for allegedly violating Twitter rules.
Earlier that year, in January, armed officers of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement raided her house and seized her electronic devices, alleging she had broken into a state messaging system and encouraged her former co-workers to “speak up.”
The controversies brought Jones national media attention, allowed her to raise substantial amounts of money through a Gofundme campaign, and fueled the governor’s dissatisfaction with the mainstream media. At the same time, she created her own COVID-19 dashboard using state data that competed with the state’s dashboard.
Jones’ attorney, Rick Johnson of Tallahassee, said Friday the IG “could not conclude that the evidence proves or disproves the two main allegations” — that Jones’ bosses directed falsification of data and pressured her to falsify Covid positivity rates. He said his client intends to continue to pursue her wrongful termination claim before the Florida Council on Human Relations.
“Unfortunately, this neutral finding is labeled ‘unsubstantiated’ but they explain that really means too close to call, not a win for DOH,’’ Johnson said. “And a neutral finding from DeSantis’ own team is as good as a win for us.”
He added that even though the IG found the state suppressed some COVID data, “It is not technically illegal, but it is clearly wrong.”
The investigation is the latest development in a two-year battle involving Jones, now a long-shot Democratic candidate for Congress running against Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Shalimar in North Florida.
Jones had worked at the Department of Health since September 2018 and began work on the COVID-19 dashboard in early March 2020.
In late April of that year, DeSantis brought a slideshow to a news conference to announce that all counties but three in South Florida would lift stay-home orders for many nonessential businesses.
As DeSantis was preparing to end COVID-19 restrictions in order to reopen the state for business, Jones alleged that Shamarial Roberson, the now-former deputy secretary of the Florida Department of Health, had directed her to “manipulate” data on the state’s COVID-19 digital dashboard to downplay the high case count in rural counties. A low positivity rate in each county was needed to satisfy the White House benchmarks for reopening the state.
Roberson denied she ordered Jones to manipulate data and Jones then allegedly threatened to file a whistleblower complaint. In a statement issued at the time discussing her dismissal, DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré cited Jones’ “repeated course of insurbordination...” But a dismissal letter supplied to the Herald on Saturday after this story was published online, indicated she was dismissed at will and no cause for her termination was cited.
“Our data is transparent,’’ DeSantis said the next day, May 20, 2020, with Vice President Mike Pence standing silently beside him, in a denunciation of the news media that went viral on Twitter.
‘Take it down’
The events that culminated in Jones’ dismissal began with an email from a Herald reporter on May 4, 2020. Reporters were inquiring about something they had seen in DOH’s published data: a variable that indicated illnesses dating back into late December 2019 and evidence of community spread earlier than previously reported.
According to internal DOH emails obtained by the Herald, the Herald’s question was referred from the communications director to Carina Blackmore, the director of disease control, who emailed that it should be answered by someone “high level.” It then bounced around the team of epidemiologists and, when no one wanted to answer, landed on Jones’ lap.
The Herald’s question had been prompted by a discrepancy it found in the COVID Open Data hub, an open source site that has long been run by the state to house de-identified individual cases of tracked diseases. It contains limited demographic information as well as dates associated with each case and is widely used by researchers, epidemiologists and journalists.
“This whole site needs to come down,” DOH epidemiologist Scott Pritchard wrote in an email to Blackmore after receiving the question about the data hub.
Blackmore said in her statement that’s when she gave the order — “take it down.”
“This is the wrong call,” Jones wrote in an email to her IT supervisor, Craig Curry, before doing as she was told.
The next day, Jones’ managers removed the dashboard’ from her control and accused her of publishing “unauthorized” data, according to the emails provided to the Herald that were not included in the IG report.
Blackmore said in her sworn statement that Jones was fired for having had “extensive, unauthorized communication with dashboard users, including reporters, about the data on the dashboard and the case-line data.”
In July 2020, Jones filed a whistleblower complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations and that led to the IG investigation.
The IG report was completed and signed on March 9 by Michael Bennett, the DOH inspector general. He reports to the state surgeon general and the Florida chief inspector general, who works for the governor.
Bennett concluded there was no evidence that Roberson or Courtney Coppola, the former DOH chief of staff, ordered Jones or other staff to falsify new COVID case positivity rates, as Jones claimed, and the report suggests her claim is therefore “unsubstantiated.”
“Based upon an analysis of the available evidence, there is insufficient evidence to prove or disprove that Dr. Roberson ordered a subordinate to misrepresent positivity rates or that that subordinate then relayed the order down to Jones,’’ the report states.
In her rebuttal, Jones disputed a claim that she did not have access to the raw data on the state’s disease reporting system known as Merlin, stating that she “worked with an extracted copy of all raw data from Merlin, and wrote the code to independently aggregate it herself.”
Jones provided the IG with a process by which investigators could test her claim but there is no indication in the report it was done.
Data briefly removed
Regarding the claim that Jones’ bosses were involved in withholding the information from the public, the report confirms it happened, albeit briefly.
The IG report echoes the DOH position statement and states that data from the open data hub was removed only “temporarily” for a quality assurance check.
Emails, not included in the report and reviewed by the Herald, show that Blackmore considered republishing the case line data after realizing that the removal of the public data caused the case numbers to disappear from the DOH website. Even then, she didn’t want the information public, she said in a May 5 email.
“I had great concerns these could be used to violate patients’ privacy,” Blackmore said in her statement in Jones’ whistleblower case, also obtained by the Herald. “I also had great concerns about external users manipulating Florida data without guidance on the strengths and limitations of these data.”
Jones confirmed to the OIG “that COVID-19 data was not deleted; rather, access to the dashboard’s underlying data was temporarily removed and then restored,’’ the report said.
Roberson, Blackmore, and Pritchard each testified during their sworn OIG interviews that they “were unaware the dashboard contained an open ‘data hub’ when the dashboard was first activated,’’ the OIG report said.
Jones disputes that and, in her response, produced emails that she says contradict those claims.
“Dr. Roberson, Dr. Blackmore, and Mr. Pritchard directed the complainant to restrict access to underlying data that supported what appeared on the COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard,’’ the report concluded. But the IG said the verdict is that they are “Exonerated.”
Note: This story was updated May 28 to include a reference to Jones’ dismissal letter, which cites no cause for her termination.
Miami Herald reporter Sarah Blaskey contributed to this report.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached by email@example.com and @MaryEllenKlas