Judge Disqualifies Rebekah Jones as Democrat in Aug. 23 primaries

A Leon County Circuit Court judge ruled Friday that: Rebekah Jones was unable to run as a Democrat in the August 23 primary.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper disqualified Jones as a candidate at the end 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 to make,” Cooper said when explaining his statement. “I think anyone who is running should be commended.”

Rebekah Jones

Rebekah Jones

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An election law passed in Florida last year requires anyone running for partisan office to be registered as a party member for an entire year before qualifying begins in June.

Jones has made a statement about her the campaign’s Facebook page On Friday, she said she would appeal the ruling.

“We will appeal immediately and voters can rest assured that we will not let Peggy Schiller, her GOP attorney or anyone else steal this election from voters,” Jones wrote.

Schiller, a retired corporate lawyer who lives in Walton County and has been active in the local Democratic Party there, also released a statement about her campaign Facebook page say she was happy with the verdict.

“I believe justice has been served,” Schiller said.

Peggy Schiller

Peggy Schiller

Schiller said Jones would have been disqualified under the same legal arguments by Republicans had Jones won the Aug. 23 primary.

“I’ve always wanted to run this campaign about covering up our bad excuse for a Representative, Matt Gaetz,” Schiller wrote. “This will be our sole focus now, and we hope the voters of the First Congressional District will unite with me to achieve this goal.”

Florida’s 1st Congressional District occupies northwest Florida and is a Republican stronghold. Rep. Matt Gaetz currently holds the seat, but faces a well-funded primary challenge from former FedEx executive and Vietnam veteran Mark Lombardo, as well as former military pilot Greg Merk.

Gaetz responded to the make a statement on Twitter by saying he doesn’t celebrate voters being denied a choice and it was “small” for Schiller to seek Jones’ defeat in a courtroom rather than during the primary.

“That said, it seems clear that the judge followed the law and that Rebekah Jones is an impostor in pretty much everything she does,” Gaetz said.

Jones became a national figure after she was fired from the Florida Department of Health in 2020.

She accused the state’s top health officials of having fired her for… refuse to manipulate COVID-19 data in support of pressure to reopen Florida after months of quarantine. She appeared several times in national media to raise the alarm about manipulation of state data while government officials expressed doubts about her allegations from the beginning.

A state inspector general granted her whistleblower status, but a state investigation completed earlier this year determined: there was no proof to support her claims.

What the lawsuit against Rebekah Jones claimed?

Schiller’s lawsuit claimed that while living in Maryland in 2021, Jones registered to vote as a Democrat in the state in April 2021. She then changed her party membership to “unaffiliated” on June 11, 2021.

The documents show that Jones changed her affiliation back to Democratic on August 11, which would mean Jones would miss the registration requirement by about two months.

Jones testified that she only registered as a Democrat in Maryland to vote once and that the other two amendments filed with the State of Maryland were not made by her.

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Jones’ attorney Ben Kuehne pointed out during Jones’ testimony that Jones received a lot of publicity after her resignation.

Jones said she moved to Maryland because she received death threats.

Speaking about his statement, Cooper said it’s not impossible that someone hacked into Jones or used her information to alter her voter registration, but the weight of the other evidence made it unlikely.

Jones submitted to run for Congress with the Federal Election Commission on June 25, 2021, as an independent candidate. She changed her Democratic Party candidacy to the FEC on August 12, 2021, a day after Jones’ voter registration in Maryland was changed back to Democratic.

Kuehne also argued that Jones’ decision to run as an independent candidate in June 2021 before becoming a Democratic candidate in August 2021 did not affect her individual party membership in the Democratic Party.

Cooper said he didn’t believe that legal argument.

Rebekah Jones speaks as a crowd protests higher utility bills outside Pensacola City Hall ahead of a Feb. 10 rally.

Rebekah Jones speaks as a crowd protests higher utility bills outside Pensacola City Hall ahead of a Feb. 10 rally.

A crucial piece of information that Kuehne repeatedly emphasized was the fact that the two changes Jones said she would not be making to her Maryland voter registration did not include her middle name.

JC Planas, Schiller’s attorney and a former Republican state legislator who left the party after Donald Trump’s election, said Jones’ argument did not hold.

“Someone who has all of her information is trying to defame her (by) making her a non-partisan voter in Maryland at the same time she’s 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 by the discrepancy in the names on the forms, until he saw the FEC forms and Jones’ own testimony that she hadn’t prepared her campaign forms herself.

“At some point, you can prove a crime with circumstantial evidence,” Cooper said. “…There is no credible evidence that anyone else is doing this or anyone else has any motivation. There is a lot of evidence for Ms. Jones or anyone helping Ms. Jones in her campaign to do this.”

Cooper said he didn’t like ruling the way he did, but he had no choice based on 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 during this (critical) period,” Cooper said.

While Cooper was explaining his statement, Jones interrupted by saying she could provide documents showing she had been hacked. The judge immediately kicked her out of the Zoom hearing, saying he wouldn’t allow anyone to speak, especially no party to the case during a ruling.

Cooper allowed Jones back into the hearing with the direction that she was not allowed to speak. When she was re-admitted to the virtual hearing, Jones said she didn’t realize she wasn’t on mute when she spoke earlier.

Jones can appeal the ruling and Cooper said he would make the final verdict in the case on Monday to give Jones the maximum time to appeal the case.

Ballot papers in the race between Schiller and Jones have already been sent to voters.

If the First District Court of Appeal upholds the ruling, Schiller will automatically win the Democratic Party nomination on Aug. 23, excluding any votes for Jones.

Jim Little can be reached at [email protected] and 850-208-9827.

This article originally appeared in Pensacola News Journal: Rebekah Jones disqualified as Democrat in August 23 primaries

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