Jared Moskowitz realized he had a big problem and needed to fix it.
As the head of Florida’s emergency management department, he was already in charge of pandemic response and had to contend with someone in his office possibly leaking to a purveyor of what he called coronavirus “disinformation.” The person receiving the leaks was Rebekah Jones, a fired health department worker who earned national media attention for unsubstantiated allegations that Florida was manipulating Covid-19 death data.
So Moskowitz, a Democratic former state lawmaker appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, said in an interview that he made the decision in July to reach out to Jones and befriend her, starting a 10-month long rapport that, he said, kept him and his office out of her crosshairs.
Moskowitz characterized his effort as a deliberate effort to keep Jones at bay even though the messages, which POLITICO obtained, have a friendly demeanor and dialogue that belie any attempt at deception.
“With a platform of 400,000 Twitter followers, her reputation for bullying people on social media and her running a disinformation campaign that the national media echoed, she was more dangerous as an enemy than a friend,” Moskowitz said. “Everything she did was disinformation.”
Moskowitz decided to speak out publicly after Jones leaked their Twitter exchanges to The Miami Herald. Jones also shared images of encrypted Signal messages between her and Moskowitz that would have disappeared, but she took screen-captured pictures of the private exchanges and also gave them to the paper. Moskowitz said he doesn’t have copies of those. It’s unclear why Jones shared her messages.
Jones, in an email to POLITICO, did not respond directly to Moskowitz’s assertion that he reached out to her to try to keep a check on her efforts to spread what he called “disinformation.”
Instead, Jones said that he was an “excellent resource for combating the conspiracy theories being spread by Ron DeSantis and his administration, whom he characterized as ‘Conspiracy Frat Bro’ and ‘relentless’ in our conversations.” She added that he provided “invaluable information that was being kept from the public” and that his information will “ensure victory in my case against the state.”
Moskowitz denied he ever said that and pointed out those words did not appear in any of the messages that have been released.
Jones added that she was “skeptical of why a politician so close to the Governor who defamed me just months prior would be reaching out, and have since come to see that Jared is a person who likes to play both sides so as to come out on top no matter what.”
The private messages between the two provide a rare behind-the-scenes view of how government policy, politics and social media collided during the pandemic in a state that captured the nation’s attention for how it managed its response to coronavirus. DeSantis’ laissez-faire approach to lockdowns and mask mandates were as celebrated by conservatives nationwide as they were condemned by many experts, Democrats and pundits who predicted dire consequences for the state.
At the center of this increasingly politicized debate over Florida’s response stood Jones and Moskowitz, who arguably held one of the most-important jobs in a disaster-prone state. Jones was well-regarded within the anti-DeSantis resistance, eager for any evidence to show that Florida had sky high death rates from the governor’s more hands-off approach. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, however, showed that Florida’s Covid death rate remains solidly in the middle of the pack of states and below New York’s, despite Jones’ statements to the contrary.
The exchanges between the two highlight the political and personal tensions that trailed Jones as her media profile increased, and included instances of a top DeSantis administration official revealing some of the drama that publicly the administration worked hard to keep quiet.
Moskowitz, who resigned in February to spend more time with his family, remained on good terms with Jones for months — even after a highly publicized law enforcement search of her home in early December amid an investigation into a hacking of a state-run computer network. Jones, who managed the state’s Covid dashboard, has denied any wrongdoing. She was eventually charged by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement with illegally gaining access to a computer system, a felony. The case remains outstanding.
Jones also faces a criminal charge for allegedly stalking a former student at Florida State University, where Jones taught. In a self-published manifesto, Jones admitted having sex with the student. She then lost her FSU job before going to work designing the state Department of Health Covid dashboard, a job she was also fired from amid a dispute over posting data on the website. Jones has made claims about being forced to change data to make Florida’s Covid situation appear better that she would later disavow or that independent media investigations found wanting. Last week, however, the Florida Office of Inspector General announced she met the basic criteria to press a whistleblower complaint against the state for her firing. The decision did not concern the merits of her accusations against the state.
As the contradictions and controversies piled up over Jones, Moskowitz was publicly defending Florida’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic — even as the DeSantis administration was being criticized for loosening Covid-related restrictions.
During the course of the pandemic, DeSantis has continually lashed out at the media and anyone who questioned his strategy. His administration has also been sued several times over withholding Covid-19 related data, including information about coronavirus variants and weekly task force reports issued by the White House. The Miami Herald reported last year that the governor’s office pressured a high-profile law firm to abandon a proposed lawsuit seeking information about positive tests in elder-care facilities.
At the same time, Moskowitz was privately communicating with Jones as she became a visible critic of the DeSantis administration who frequently showed on national cable outlets. Jones sparked DeSantis’ ire so much that he got visibly agitated while discussing her during a 2020 press conference with then-Vice President Mike Pence.
The messages show Moskowitz conversing with Jones about ongoing personnel matters and problems inside state government — including the ouster of the main Department of Health spokesperson that Moskowitz said was ordered from “downtown” — a reference to the Executive Office of the Governor.
Jones even talked about trying to land a new job under Moskowitz at the Division of Emergency Management.
“Giving me a prominent position in DEM would go a long way to build back the public’s trust,” she wrote at one time. She asked Moskowitz to link to her personal Covid-19 dashboard she set up after she left state government and tweet it out.
Moskowitz said he first reached out to Jones after she tweeted July 16 that his agency was “trying to cover up” the fact that 13 employees tested positive for Covid-19. But it wasn’t a coverup; multiple news organizations were in the process of reporting the news, and Moskowitz said he realized he had a leak in the office.
So he decided to reach out to Jones privately by direct messages on Twitter, prompting Jones to marvel at “the brass balls you must have to message me directly.”
At times, Moskowitz was complementary of Jones, and once he invited her to meet for coffee, though they never followed through.
“I know you know your stuff and are committed,” Moskowitz said, lauding her appearances on CNN with Chris Cuomo in 2020.
Jones discussed with Moskowitz his name being floated for a possible job in the administration of President Joe Biden, which Biden campaign sources said was false.
In the messages, Jones railed against her former employers at the Department of Health, contending that a top official in the agency was incompetent. Moskowitz did not comment directly on her criticism, but he acknowledged that the department needed to be overhauled.
Moskowitz said his communications with Jones were akin to “keeping a fish on the hook.” And he said it worked. Jones didn’t criticize his agency and cause him huge social media headaches the way she did with two well-respected epidemiologists whom she attacked on social media: the University of South Florida’s Jason Salemi and the University of Florida’s Natalie Dean, both of whom Jones criticized for discounting the notion that Florida was intentionally hiding Covid-19 deaths.
All of the unsubstantiated claims about Covid deaths in Florida were ultimately counterproductive for Democrats, said Moskowitz, because it built up the expectation that the state would be an utter disaster and it wasn’t, thereby benefitting DeSantis.
“There was no doubt this was an effort to harm the governor,” Moskowitz told POLITICO. “But what they’ve done is the opposite: give him a national platform and attention that made him a political juggernaut in his party.”
DeSantis’s new press secretary, Christina Pushaw, also has a tie to Jones. Prior to working for the governor, Pushaw penned a lengthy story in the conservative Human Events publication that detailed Jones’s legal troubles and shifting stories with the headline “The ‘Florida Covid-19 Whistleblower’ Saga Is A Big Lie.”
In late October, right before the 2020 election, Jones asked Moskowitz about the political fallout of the pandemic.
“Do you think things will change re: pandemic in Florida post-election? Will Ron DeSantis back off the crazy?” she asked.
“You know the answer,” Moskowitz replied.
After he stepped down, Moskowitz and Jones continued to talk via direct message, with her asking to interview him for what she said was her book and requesting more information about his resignation because she was slated to discuss it on CNN. Moskowitz declined to elaborate and said he never sat for an interview with her.
“To think I actually believed you were a good person,” Jones said to Moskowitz in an online exchange, complaining that she was being attacked in the article and that Moskowitz was doing nothing to “correct it.”
“My statement is a general statement,” Moskowitz said. When Moskowitz made the comment to POLITICO, he insisted it be general and not name Jones.
When asked why he didn’t cease communicating with Jones after she had been arrested, Moskowitz said that he did — for about two months. But the two resumed their personal messages even as Moskowitz was getting ready to announce his eventual departure from state government.
“She had a dedicated following, and whether it was fact or fiction, they treated everything she said as if it were in the Old Testament,” Moskowitz told POLITICO, adding that people who followed Jones came up with even more “outlandish” theories, including that the state was hiding the bodies of people who died from Covid-19.
“And I would say I would know if we are hiding bodies in warehouses,” Moskowitz said. “I’m in charge of the warehouses.”
The exchanges ended last month after Moskowitz, who is currently between jobs, became aware that the messages had been shared with The Miami Herald. In one of the final messages, Jones chastises Moskowitz for suggesting he only engaged her to dispel conspiracy theories.
“Why can’t you just tell the truth,” Jones wrote to Moskowitz, adding “what game are you playing here, because this is my life, and you’re trying to lie to help your political standing?”