Florida ousts

Florida Ousts Top COVID-19 Data Scientist : Coronavirus Live Updates – NPR

Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard, here in a snapshot Tuesday, has won praise from researchers for its accessibility and details.

Florida GIS/Screenshot by NPR

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Florida GIS/Screenshot by NPR

Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard, here in a snapshot Tuesday, has won praise from researchers for its accessibility and details.

Florida GIS/Screenshot by NPR

Update at 8:51 p.m. ET

A scientist who created a dashboard for monitoring Florida’s rising number of COVID-19 cases said she’s been fired for refusing to manipulate the data.

Rebekah Jones was the manager of the Geographic Information System team at Florida’s Department of Health. She helped created a data portal that for months has provided easily accessible and detailed information on COVID-19 cases broken down by ZIP code. The Florida COVID-19 dashboard has been praised by researchers in the state and by Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator.

Last week, Jones notified public health researchers in an email that she’d been removed from the project. “As a word of caution,” she wrote, “I would not expect the new team to continue the same level of accessibility and transparency that I made central to the process during the first two months. After all, my commitment to both is largely (arguably entirely) the reason I am no longer managing it.”

Jones now says she’s been fired from the state Department of Health. In a statement to CBS12 News in West Palm Beach, Fla., Jones said her dismissal came after she refused to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.”

All of Florida entered the first phase of recovery this week when the two largest counties joined the rest of the state in opening restaurants, retail stores and barber shops.

At a news conference in Tallahassee, Gov. Ron DeSantis called Jones’ departure from the Health Department a “nonissue.” He said he’d seen an email she sent her supervisor saying she never intended to suggest the information on the dashboard might be less reliable going forward. DeSantis said he believes from the email that “she was tired and needed a break.”

In a statement later to The Miami Herald, DeSantis’ communications director, Helen Aguirre Ferré, said, “Rebekah Jones exhibited a repeated course of insubordination during her time with the department, including her unilateral decisions to modify the Department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors.

“The blatant disrespect for the professionals who were working around the clock to provide the important information for the COVID-19 website was harmful to the team. Accuracy and transparency are always indispensable, especially during an unprecedented public health emergency such as COVID-19. Having someone disruptive cannot be tolerated during this public pandemic, which led the department to determine that it was best to terminate her employment.”

Jones’ removal from the project and her subsequent dismissal have raised questions about the impartiality and transparency of Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Ben Sawyer, director of LabX at the University of Central Florida, which is investigating how local health systems are coping with COVID-19 cases, said her ouster is “quite disturbing to me as a scientist and as a citizen.”

“Regardless of what you think about reopening Florida, you would like to know what’s going on,” Sawyer said. “This data is our ability to see what’s happening. I think there are enormous questions that arise when you don’t know if what you see [is] fair or accurate.”

Jones’ dismissal also drew immediate criticism from Democratic members of Congress, including Kathy Castor, who represents the Tampa area. Castor is asking the governor to provide immediate answers as to why Jones was fired.

“Amidst pressure to ‘reopen’ the state regardless of data and science,” Castor wrote, “transparency is vital to keeping our neighbors safe and ensuring that they have confidence that our government is reporting honestly.”

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ousts Trump

Trump ousts State Department watchdog – POLITICO

Trump’s move infuriated Democrats who say he’s trying to circumvent oversight of his administration, undermining the ability of other branches to hold him accountable. The move follows Trump’s anger at being impeached, but it also comes as the White House struggles to combat the coronavirus pandemic just months before the presidential election.

“The president’s late-night, weekend firing of the State Department inspector general has accelerated his dangerous pattern of retaliation against the patriotic public servants charged with conducting oversight on behalf of the American people,” Pelosi said in an statement. “Inspector General Linick was punished for honorably performing his duty to protect the Constitution and our national security, as required by the law and by his oath.”

Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, called Linick’s dismissal an “outrageous act of a president trying to protect one of his most loyal supporters, the secretary of State, from accountability.”

Engel claimed: “I have learned that the Office of the Inspector General had opened an investigation into Secretary Pompeo. Mr. Linick’s firing amid such a probe strongly suggests that this is an unlawful act of retaliation.”

A Democratic congressional aide said Linick had launched an investigation into Pompeo’s alleged misuse of a political appointee to perform personal tasks for him and Mrs. Pompeo. The State Department did not respond to an inquiry about the allegation.

Linick played a minor role in the House of Representatives’ impeachment proceedings against Trump, ferrying a trove of documents to lawmakers that had been provided to the State Department by Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer.

A State Department spokesperson said that Amb. Stephen Akard, a former career Foreign Service officer, “will now lead the Office of the Inspector General at the State Department” in an acting capacity.

Akard had in 2017 been nominated to serve as the director general of the Foreign Service, a high-ranking human resources role.

That nomination upset veteran U.S. diplomats, who said Akard lacked the long tenure of service usually required for such a prestigious position. The American Academy of Diplomacy even wrote an unusual letter opposing his nomination.

Akard’s nomination as director general was eventually withdrawn, but he was later tapped for a different role, leading the Office of Foreign Missions, for which he was confirmed in September 2019.

Before joining the Trump administration, Akard was chief of staff for the Indiana Economic Development Corporation under then-governor Pence.

Linick is well-respected at the State Department, and his office stays busy, regularly churning out a range of inspections, audits and other types of reports.

His departure is likely to further deepen morale problems that have festered at State since the start of the Trump administration, when many career diplomats found themselves shunted aside and cast as a “deep state” bent on undermining Trump.

Two of Linick’s most-read reports over the past year involved alleged retaliation by Trump political appointees against career employees.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Linick’s ouster “shameful.”

“Another late Friday night attack on independence, accountability, and career officials,” Menendez tweeted. “At this point, the president’s paralyzing fear of any oversight is undeniable.”

Trump has removed a number of federal watchdogs in the last few months, including Health and Human Services Inspector General Christi Grimm, who issued a report critical of the administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic; and the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, whose handling of a whistleblower report ultimately led to Trump’s impeachment.

Separately, Trump also notified Congress on Friday of his intent to nominate Eric Soskin, a Justice Department trial counsel who has been involved in some hot-button immigration and civil rights cases, to be inspector general of the Department of Transportation. Soskin has worked in the Justice Department’s federal programs division as senior trial counsel for 14 years, according to a White House announcement.

Calvin Scovel retired as DOT inspector general earlier this year, after 13 years in the job.

Andrew Desiderio, Kyle Cheney and Brianna Gurciullo contributed reporting.

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