Judge disqualifies Rebekah Jones from running as Democrat in Aug. 23 primary
A Leon County District Court judge ruled Friday that Rebekah Jones could not run as a Democrat in the August 23 primary.
Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper disqualified Jones after the conclusion of a virtual hearing Friday in a lawsuit filed by her Democratic opponent for Florida's 1st congressional district, Peggy Schiller.
"It's not a happy decision," Cooper said when explaining his verdict. "I think everyone who runs for office should be commended."
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A Florida election law passed last year requires anyone running for party office to be registered as a member of the party for a full year before qualifying begins in June.
Jones posted a statement on her campaign's Facebook page on Friday that she would appeal the verdict.
"We are appealing immediately, and voters can rest assured that we will not allow Peggy Schiller, her GOP attorney, or anyone else to steal this election from voters," Jones wrote.
Schiller, a retired corporate attorney who lives in Walton County and was active in the local Democratic Party there, also issued a statement on her campaign's Facebook page saying she was pleased with the verdict.
"I believe justice has been done," Schiller said.
Schiller said Jones would have been disqualified by the Republicans under the same legal arguments if Jones had won the August 23 primary.
"I've always wanted to do this campaign to defeat our poor apology for a rep, Matt Gaetz," Schiller wrote. "This will be our sole focus now, and we hope that voters in the first congressional district will join with me in achieving that goal."
Florida's 1st congressional district includes Northwest Florida and is a Republican stronghold. Rep. Matt Gaetz currently holds the seat but faces a well-funded key challenge from former FedEx executive and Vietnam veteran Mark Lombardo and former military pilot Greg Merk.
Gaetz responded to the ruling on Twitter by saying he did not celebrate voters being denied an election and that it was "small" of Schiller to seek Jones' defeat in a courtroom rather than during the primary.
"That said, it seems obvious that the judge followed the law and that Rebekah Jones is a fraud in virtually everything she does," Gaetz said.
Jones became a national figure after being fired from the Florida Department of Health and Human Services in 2020.
She accused top state health officials of firing her for refusing to manipulate COVID-19 data to help push Florida to reopen after months of quarantine. She has made multiple appearances in national media to raise alarms about the manipulation of government data, while government officials have expressed doubts about her allegations from the start.
An inspector general granted her whistleblower status, but a state investigation completed earlier this year found there was no evidence to support her claims.
What the lawsuit alleges against Rebekah Jones
Schiller's lawsuit alleged that Jones, while residing in Maryland in 2021, registered as a Democrat to vote in the state in April 2021. She then changed her party affiliation to “non-party” on June 11, 2021.
The documents show that Jones changed her affiliation back to Democratic on August 11, which would mean Jones missed registration by about two months.
Jones testified that she only registered as a Democrat to vote in Maryland once and that she did not make the other two amendments submitted to the State of Maryland.
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Ben Kuehne, Jones' attorney, pointed out during Jones' testimony that Jones gained widespread publicity after her release.
Jones said she moved to Maryland because she received death threats.
During an explanation of his verdict, Cooper said it's not impossible that someone hacked Jones or used her information to alter her voter registration, but the weight of the other evidence makes it unlikely.
Jones applied to the Federal Elections Commission as an independent candidate for Congress on June 25, 2021. She changed her candidacy with the FEC to the Democratic Party on August 12, 2021, the day after Jones voter registration in Maryland was changed back to Democratic.
Kühne also argued that Jones' decision to run as an independent in June 2021 before becoming the Democratic nominee in August 2021 did not affect her individual party affiliation, which remained with the Democratic Party.
Cooper said he didn't buy that legal argument.
Rebekah Jones speaks as a crowd outside Pensacola City Hall protests higher utility bills ahead of a February 10 meeting.
A key piece of information that Kühne repeatedly highlighted was the fact that the two changes that Jones said she hadn't made to her Maryland voter registration did not include her middle name.
J.C. Planas, Schiller's attorney and a former Republican congressman who left the party after Donald Trump's election, said Jones' argument did not stand up to scrutiny.
"Someone who has all of her information and is trying to defame her by making her a nonpartisan, registered voter in Maryland while at the same time running for Congress as an independent and telling the press she's running as an independent, her Argument doesn't hold water at all," Planas said.
Cooper said he was initially convinced of the discrepancy in the names on the forms until he saw the FEC forms and Jones' own statement that she did not create her campaign forms herself.
"Eventually you can prove a crime with circumstantial evidence," Cooper said. "...There is no credible evidence that any other person is doing this or any other person has any motivation. There is a lot of evidence of Ms Jones or someone supporting Ms Jones in her campaign to do this.”
Cooper said he didn't enjoy having to govern the way he does but had no choice because of the evidence.
"I don't think I can come to any other conclusion than that Ms. Jones was not a registered member of the Democratic Party for nearly two months at this (crucial) time," Cooper said.
As Cooper explained his verdict, Jones interrupted him by saying she could produce documents proving she was hacked. The judge immediately kicked her out of the Zoom hearing, saying he doesn't allow anyone to speak during a sentencing, particularly a party in the case.
Cooper let Jones back into the hearing with instructions that she not be allowed to speak. When she was allowed back into the virtual hearing, Jones said she didn't realize she wasn't muted when she spoke earlier.
Jones can appeal the verdict, and Cooper said he will file the final order in the case by Monday to give Jones maximum time to appeal the case.
Ballots in the Schiller-Jones race have already been mailed to voters.
If the First Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the verdict, Schiller will automatically win the Democratic Party nomination on August 23, and all ballots cast for Jones will not be counted.
Jim Little can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 850-208-9827.
This article originally appeared in the Pensacola News Journal: Rebekah Jones was disqualified from running as a Democrat in the August 23 primary
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