Gov. DeSantis and Rebekah Jones' criminal background info

Should Rebekah Jones' arrest record be an issue? UPDATED 5/26/20.

The administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) recently fired Rebekah Jones, who was either the genius behind, or the data-input clerk for, the state's coronavirus dashboard. News reports say that Ms. Jones is still employed by the state and has until next week to accept or reject a separation agreement.

Ms. Jones is either a brilliant scientist who created the dashboard and was terminated for her single-minded pursuit of the truth about Florida's coronavirus statistics, or she is a low-level database manager who had a grossly inflated opinion of herself and insubordinately refused to comply with her bosses' reasonable requests on numerous occasions.

I won't get into that, or the merits of Ms. Jones' termination, because the story is completely different depending on which news source you are reading. Unlike them, this blog is non-partisan. :-) And if Ms. Jones accepts a separation agreement, we'll probably never know the real story.

But what I would like to talk about is the Governor's reference to Ms. Jones' arrest record. When asked about the termination during a press conference this week, the Governor said that, in addition to being insubordinate, Ms. Jones had a criminal record and should never have been hired in the first place.

According to CBS4 in Miami,

DeSantis also pointed out that Jones had been facing criminal charges for stalking last summer. That case is pending. Two other charges of cyberstalking and cyber sexual harassment were dropped. Court records show the charges stemmed from a romantic relationship that turned bad.

“So I’ve asked the Department of Health to explain to me how someone would be allowed to be charged with that and continue on because this was many months ago. I have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment. So her supervisor dismissed her because of a lot of those reasons and it was a totally valid way. But she should have been dismissed long before that,” [Gov. DeSantis] said. 

Politics ain't beanbag, but was it cool of the Governor to publicly disclose criminal charges against a soon-to-be-ex employee, some of which had not gone to trial and some of which have been dropped or dismissed?

My vote is, Not cool.

Not politics.

I'm not siding with Ms. Jones, but here's what I'd say about the disclosure of her criminal background information:

First, these are arrest records. It doesn't appear that Ms. Jones has been convicted of anything -- at least, not yet. And I thought employers were supposed to give employees the benefit of the doubt on their arrest records unless the arrest was for a particularly egregious crime (like terrorism), or only the latest chapter in a pattern of crime, or a crime that put the organization at risk (like embezzlement, when the employee is the employer's Chief Money Handler).

Second, it appears that most (not all, as CBS4 initially reported) of the arrests stemmed a relationship that went bad. That isn't good, but domestic disputes may not always have a high risk of carrying over into the workplace. 

(I did read somewhere -- must have been a right-wing site -- that the person Ms. Jones allegedly harassed was a university student she was mentoring and had had a sexual relationship with. Definitely not cool, and if she would do that, she could have broader "boundary issues" at work, which could carry over into her state government job. She also reportedly got arrested once when she was working at Louisiana State University in the Human Resources Department -- and it was HR who called the cops. If these reports are correct, there is some "smoke" here.)

UPDATE (5/26/20): Whoa.

Third, she hasn't pled to or been convicted of anything that I know about. Maybe her ex-boyfriend is being vindictive by filing lots of frivolous criminal charges against her. Isn't that a reason to wait for a plea or a conviction before acting on a criminal record?

Fourth, she wasn't fired because of her criminal record. She was fired either for whistleblowing (says the left) or insubordination (says the right). So, why get into her arrest record at all?

Stay on topic, Governor!

I don't think Ms. Jones has been defamed, but I'd be a lot more interested in hearing the state's full explanation of what she did that was considered insubordinate and why her boss instructed her to temporarily remove some of the data from the dashboard for about a day -- right around the same time that the media was asking whether Florida had manipulated its coronavirus statistics to support a reopening.

(And, yes, there could be a perfectly legitimate reason for this. The state epidemiologist may have needed to review the data so that she could verify it before responding to the media inquiries.)

I'd also like to know whether the data in the column in question were actually wrong. Even if wrong, I'd like to know whether that was a "no harm, no foul" mistake (in other words, a mistake that didn't affect the overall conclusion that reopening has been good for Florida). I could have missed it, but I haven't seen anyone report on this, even though at least one media outlet says it captured the original data before it was taken down. Also, I think the missing column was reinstated after one day.

In which case, the reference to Ms. Jones's arrest record seems gratuitous and a distraction from what could be a winning issue for the Governor.

But I'm talking like an employment lawyer. And Ms. Jones will probably accept the severance agreement, and that will be that.

Off-topic: Whatever phase of reopening you're in this weekend (we're starting Phase 2 today -- hair salon, here I come, and not a minute too soon!), I wish you all a very happy Memorial Day weekend!

Image Credits: Both from flickr, Creative Commons license. Game of bean bag (or cornhole) by David Fulmer, photo of Gov. DeSantis by South Florida Water Management District.

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
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