Criminal Justice

3 Lina Hidalgo staffers indicted in connection with $11 million Harris County COVID vaccine outreach contract

Hidalgo has not been indicted, and has denied any wrongdoing.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo fields questions after unsealed court documents alleged that staff members in Hidalgo's office steered an $11 million contract for a COVID-19 outreach project to a preferred vendor. Taken on March 22, 2022.

Two current senior staffers and one former senior staffer for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo were indicted Monday for what investigators say was an attempt to steer a roughly $11 million COVID-19 vaccine outreach contract to a preferred vendor.

Chief of Staff Alex Triantaphyllis, former senior policy director Wallis Nader and former senior adviser Aaron Dunn were all indicted on charges of records tampering and misuse of official information, according to records filed with the Harris County District Clerk. All three have been accused of communicating with a vendor, Elevate Strategies, to tailor an ostensibly competitive bid process to the company’s strengths.

The contract was eventually pulled.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has not been indicted, and has denied any wrongdoing.

Texas Rangers raided the Harris County Administration Building last month, seizing phones and computers for the three county employees. According to recently unsealed warrants, messages from Triantaphyllis, Nader and Dunn appear to show the three coordinating with Elevate founder Felicity Pereyra to tweak the language of a request for proposal in a way that best favored Pereyra’s company. In particular, Nader and Triantaphyllis are shown exchanging a Google document back and forth before sending the document to Hidalgo herself for review.

Warrants released last week show Texas Rangers sought access to Google accounts associated with Hidalgo, the three indicted staff members and others in her office in an attempt to find out who had access to those documents, when they had access and what changes they made.

The warrants allege Triantaphyllis shared a document called "Vaccine-related community engagement scope" with the Elevate founder. Investigators say the document is the same one ultimately used for the final Request for Proposal.

PREVIOUSLY | Unsealed warrants detail communication between Hidalgo staffers and a vendor over $11 million contract

According to court documents, Hidalgo’s staff started to consider Elevate in January of 2021. The company had previously helped with U.S. Census outreach, and Hidalgo’s team said it felt the vendor was the right fit for a contract to advertise, door-knock and oversee communication with undervaccinated communities in an attempt to raise vaccination rates in the county.

The selection process included a uniform scoring matrix, in which Dunn, Nader and Triantaphyllis were among the five people tasked with scoring the proposals. The University of Texas Health Science Center came in first with a score of 46.8%, with Elevate coming in second with 40.4%, the warrants show.

But despite scoring lower and coming in with a more expensive proposal than UT Health, Elevate was nonetheless awarded the $11 million contract with a 4-1 vote in Commissioners Court last June. Republican Commissioner Jack Cagle was the lone dissenting vote.

That contract was later criticized by Cagle and others who accused Democrats on the court of favoring a partisan organization. Pereyra previously worked for the Democratic National Convention and the Hilary Clinton campaigns, and was deputy campaign manager for Democratic Commissioner Adrian Garcia’s unsuccessful 2015 Houston mayoral run.

Representatives for Hidalgo did not immediately comment on the indictments Monday.

Democratic Commissioner Rodney Ellis, one of the “yes” votes on Elevate, defended Hidalgo in a statement. He pointed to recent media reports about documents her lawyers say provide an alternate explanation for at least some of the communications. Houston Public Media has not reviewed those documents.

“During her time in office, Judge Hidalgo has gone out of her way to hold herself and her staff to the highest ethical standards,” Ellis said. “From recent press reports we have seen, there are still too many unanswered questions about the facts of the Elevate contract investigation for us to pass judgment. These public servants have earned the benefit of the doubt until the system plays out and the facts prevail.”

The county judge has publicly defended choosing Elevate, arguing that the company’s work on the Census project made it a better fit for the vaccination outreach. A staff report detailed in the warrants argued that previous community outreach projects from UT Health “have not been shown to be successful.”

Text messages between the staff members go a step further, according to court documents.

“This vaccine outreach is getting ridiculous,” Triantaphyllis allegedly texted on April 20, 2021. “We need to slam the door shut on UT and move on.”

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