Rumble In The Panhandle: Gaetz Will Face Off Against Rebekah Jones, DeSantis’ COVID Villain

TPM Illustration/Getty Images/Facebook

Voters in Florida’s panhandle will choose this November between two of the most polarizing political figures in the state.

On the one side is Matt Gaetz, the Republican congressman and Trump wannabe who is reportedly under federal investigation for potential sex crimes. On the other is Democrat Rebekah Jones, a former state geographer and Gov. Ron DeSantis antagonist who is currently facing a state criminal charge after alleging that she came under pressure from superiors to fudge COVID-19 data.

Florida’s First Congressional District is blood red, all but ensuring Gaetz’ victory. But Jones is a high-profile critic of the DeSantis administration and the Republican Party more generally, and her race against Gaetz will offer a megaphone for her to make her case.

“This is good versus Gaetz, and nothing’s going to stop us now,” Jones said in a victory message after Tuesday’s results were clear.

Gaetz won with nearly 70% of the vote in his primary, despite the reported federal sex trafficking investigation, beating a challenger who suggested he’d been an informant for the FBI raid on Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home and resort. (Gaetz denied the charge.)

‘Everything She Did Was Disinformation’

As much as Gaetz is near the top of liberals’ list of MAGA-era villains, Jones has become a target for conservatives who bristle at her allegations about pandemic data and critiques of DeSantis: She became a household name in Florida when she blew the whistle on the state’s COVID-19 accounting practices, saying she’d been removed from her government role because she refused to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.” 

But an inspector general’s investigation later found that the specific wrongdoing Jones alleged was mostly “unsubstantiated” or “unfounded.” The probe did find evidence that the state temporarily restricted access to underlying COVID data, but said that activity “was not found to be a violation of any governing directive.”

A National Review headline on Jones’ Tuesday primary win summarized her role in the right’s coronavirus narrative: “Covid Conspiracy Theorist Rebekah Jones Wins Dem Nomination.” 

But it’s not only Republicans: DeSantis’ former emergency management director Jared Moskowitz — himself the winner of a Democratic congressional primary bid Tuesday in a Democratic-leaning area — told Politico last year that he took pains to stay on Jones’ good side because “she was more dangerous as an enemy than a friend.” 

“Everything she did was disinformation,” Moskowitz said. 

‘Our Very Own Florida Heroine’

Nonetheless, as a candidate, Jones has leaned into the whistleblower label. 

“She exhibited a kind of moral courage which has simply been absent from the government almost across the board,” Daniel Ellsberg, who a half-century ago leaked the Pentagon Papers, says in a video endorsement featured on Jones’ TikTok page. The candidate’s campaign website labels Jones, “The Florida scientist, whistleblower and mother who risked it all to fight corrupt government, cementing her place in history as our very own Florida heroine.” 

Jones’ actions came with a price: In December 2020, her home was raided, and the following month she was slapped with a third-degree felony charge over her alleged use of a state emergency messaging system to text roughly 1,750 people. “It’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead,” she allegedly wrote. “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.” 

Jones’ specific claims aside, the state’s pandemic response was governed, and often impeded, by extreme secrecy and micromanaging from DeSantis’ office, as well as a “hyper-politicized” Department of Health communications office, The Miami Herald reported based on internal communications and interviews with state officials. 

And the governor, for his part, has stoked the feud with Jones: In May 2020, as Vice President Mike Pence stood by him, DeSantis called Jones out after she blew the whistle on the state’s data, saying she was “not a data scientist. She is somebody that has a degree in journalism communication and geography.” 

After the raid of Jones’ home that December, she said DeSantis had “sent the gestapo,” also prompting a rebuttal from the governor. 

“These people did their jobs, they’ve been smeared as the gestapo” he said, adding that police had enforced a search warrant “because her IP address was linked to the felony! What were they supposed to do, just ignore it?” (Twenty months later, at least one Twitter user joked that DeSantis could have mounted the same defense of the FBI’s raid of Mar-a-Lago.) 

The big-name congressional match-up almost didn’t happen: Jones’ competitor in the Democratic primary sued to boot her from the ballot, saying that Jones didn’t meet a new, legally required registration history as a Florida Democrat; Jones was without a party affiliation for two months last year. A county circuit court judge agreed with Jones’ challenger, Peggy Schiller, but an appeals court reaffirmed Jones’ ballot eligibility the day before Tuesday’s primary. Jones beat Schiller by nearly 9,000 votes, a 25-point margin. 

‘He And I Both Had Sex With The Girl Who Was Underage’

Gaetz’ district’s Republican slant makes him the overwhelming favorite this November despite the apparently ongoing federal sex crimes investigation into him. 

Gaetz’ associate, Joel Greenberg, pleaded guilty in an agreement with federal prosecutors last year to six federal charges: sex trafficking of a child, producing a false identification document, aggravated identity theft, wire fraud, stalking and conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States. 

And The Daily Beast reported in April last year that Greenberg claimed in a confession letter that both he and Gaetz had had sex with a 17-year-old girl who, according to Greenberg, they both believed to be 19 years old. Greenberg had later learned her true age, he reportedly said in the letter, and informed Gaetz. 

Another man, a Greenberg associate who’d pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy to commit fraud and drug charges, supposedly witnessed the September 2017 call in which Greenberg informed Gaetz of the girl’s age, The Daily Beast reported in January.

In May 2018, Gaetz sent $900 to Greenberg on Venmo, after which Greenberg made three payments on the app to young women, including one who’d just turned 18, with the descriptions “Tuition,” “School” and “School,” the outlet reported.

“My lawyers that I fired, know the whole story about MG’s involvement. They know he paid me to pay the girls and that he and I both had sex with the girl who was underage. So naturally they think that is my golden ticket,” Greenberg reportedly wrote back in December 2020 to Trump confidante Roger Stone, through whom he’d reportedly attempted to seek a presidential pardon. “And while I have not had any communication with MG, he absolutely has to know that the sex charge they hit me with would be what they would hit him with.”

A Jan. 6 committee witness alleged that Gaetz sought a “blanket pardon” from Donald Trump for Republicans who attended a meeting focused on overturning the 2020 presidential election results.

“The general tone was, ‘we may get prosecuted because we were defensive of the President’s positions on these things,’” former White House lawyer Eric Herschmann told Jan. 6 Committee investigators, describing the pardon Gaetz sought. “The pardon that he (Gaetz) was discussing requesting was as broad as you could describe — from the beginning of time up until today for all things. He mentioned Nixon and I said, ‘Nixon’s pardon was never nearly that broad.’”

But the congressman has not been charged with a crime. And, he insists, he has never exchanged anything of value in for sex. 

Jones faces an unrelated criminal cyberstalking charge as well. The state misdemeanor count alleges that Jone stalked a former student and boyfriend of hers from Florida State University. Jones reached a plea agreement with the state in the case but the agreement was withdrawn the month prior to the raid of Jones’ home in the emergency messaging system case.

“We’re going to stop our prosecution until that (other) investigation is complete,” the state prosecutor handling the stalking case told the Tallahassee Democrat. “It is not unusual for us to do that.”

Dear Reader,

When we asked recently what makes TPM different from other outlets, readers cited factors like honesty, curiosity, transparency, and our vibrant community. They also pointed to our ability to report on important stories and trends long before they are picked up by mainstream outlets; our ability to contextualize information within the arc of history; and our focus on the real-world consequences of the news.

Our unique approach to reporting and presenting the news, however, wouldn’t be possible without our readers’ support. That’s not just marketing speak, it’s true: our work would literally not be possible without readers deciding to become members. Not only does member support account for more than 80% of TPM’s revenue, our members have helped us build an engaged and informed community. Many of our best stories were born from reader tips and valuable member feedback.

We do what other news outlets can’t or won’t do because our members’ support gives us real independence.

If you enjoy reading TPM and value what we do, become a member today.

Latest News
Comments
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Investigations Desk:
Reporters:
Newswriter:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Publisher:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: