By Jim Saunders, Dara Kam The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — A fired Florida Department of Health data analyst who contends Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration has manipulated COVID-19 statistics filed a lawsuit Sunday alleging state law-enforcement agents violated her rights when they searched her home and hauled away computer equipment.
Attorneys for Rebekah Jones, who has drawn national attention for her battles with the DeSantis administration, argued in the lawsuit that a search warrant to enter her home Dec. 7 “was obtained in bad faith and with no legitimate object or purpose.”
“They were there to execute a search warrant for her electronics devices; however the basis of the warrant was a sham to punish plaintiff (Jones) for her protected speech,” the lawsuit said. “Her termination from the Florida Department of Health after refusing to falsify data generated a great deal of media coverage much to the dismay of the state.”
The lawsuit, filed in Leon County circuit court, alleges violations of Jones’ First Amendment rights and due-process rights and alleges an unlawful search and seizure. It names as defendants Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen, Agent Noel Pratts and an unidentified agent listed as John Doe.
Swearingen issued a brief statement Monday defending his agents.
“As I have said before, I am proud of the professionalism shown by our FDLE agents as they served a legal search warrant on the residence of Rebekah Jones,” Swearingen said. “Our criminal investigation continues, and while I have not seen this lawsuit, I believe the facts will come out in court.”
The FDLE conducted the search at Jones’ house after an investigation allegedly linked her home address to a Nov. 10 message sent on an internal Department of Health multi-user account.
“It’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead. You know this is wrong. You don’t have to be part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it’s too late,” the message from an unidentified sender said.
Jones tweeted a video of agents entering her house and accused DeSantis of sending the “Gestapo” after her.
The DeSantis administration fired Jones this year after she accused state health officials of manipulating data to suppress the number of reported COVID-19 cases and deaths. After her dismissal, Jones set up a competing COVID-19 dashboard to display data about the virus.
The lawsuit said Jones was “neither the author nor the sender of the message” that touched off the investigation.
“FDLE, seeking to ingratiate itself to DeSantis, sought to silence plaintiff’s online speech by confiscating her computer and to discover her confidential sources and other information by seizing her cell phone,” said the lawsuit, filed by Tallahassee attorney Richard Johnson, Longwood attorney Lawrence Walters and Atlanta attorney Lisa Lambert. “That was the motive for obtaining the search warrant, not the ridiculous notion that FDLE believed plaintiff sent the message at issue and that it would have been illegal so to do.”
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages and an injunction that would require Swearingen to return property seized in the search. It identifies Pratts as the agent in charge of the investigation. It also accused the agent identified as John Doe of battery for allegedly inappropriately touching Jones during the incident.
Amid the nationwide media attention this month, DeSantis and Swearingen have publicly lashed out at Jones.
“This individual became known, because she alleged a conspiracy theory at the Department of Health, which is unfounded and never proven at all,” DeSantis said during one appearance. “She was fired because she wasn’t doing a good job. None of the stuff that she said was ever proven. You’d think that would be the end of it. Obviously, she’s got issues. On this situation, there was an intrusion of a very sensitive system. It’s an emergency alert system. If somebody gets a hold of that, they can do a lot of damage.”