Florida COVID-19 whistleblower turns herself in on felony computer charge

(Reuters) - A former Florida public health whistleblower who says she was fired because she refused to manipulate COVID-19 data turned herself in to face a felony computer offense and was released on bail on Monday, Florida officials and media said.

FILE PHOTO: Rebekah Jones, a data scientist who helped build Florida state's online COVID dashboard, stands outside with her family members and law enforcement officers, as they execute a search warrant at her home in Tallahassee, Florida, U.S., December 7, 2020 in this still image taken from bodycam video. Subject blurred at source. Florida Department of Law Enforcement/Handout via REUTERS

But the judge refused the state’s request to deny her internet access and fit her with a GPS tracking device while awaiting trial, Florida Today reported.

Rebekah Jones, 31, has been charged with a third-degree felony on suspicion of sending an unauthorized message on the state’s emergency alert system and downloading confidential state information.

She faces up to five years and a $5,000 fine if convicted.

She turned herself in on Sunday, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said in a news release, and tested positive for COVID-19 while in custody, her attorney Stephen Dobson said, Florida Today reported.

Her case has become emblematic of the political divide in the United States, pitting those who have sounded urgent alarms over the coronavirus pandemic against those who see the threat as exaggerated and oppose damaging the economy with stay-at-home orders.

Jones has said she was dismissed in May because she refused to manipulate data to downplay the severity of Florida’s coronavirus outbreak.

She was charged with one count of offenses against users of computers, computer systems, computer networks and electronic devices, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said.

Court documents show the state accuses her of illegally accessing the Department of Health’s emergency-alert messaging system and sending an alert that read: “It’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead. You know this is wrong. You don’t have to be a part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it’s too late.”

The message reached about 1,750 users before being halted, the state says.

Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Howard Goller