Politics

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

No charges have been filed, and there have been no arrests, but the Texas Rangers confirmed Friday the investigation is ongoing.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo at a Commissioners Court meeting in February 2020.

Staff members in Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office appeared to coordinate to try and steer an $11 million contract for a COVID-19 outreach project to a preferred vendor, according to recently unsealed court documents.

Those documents detail text message exchanges and outline email correspondence between employees in the county judge’s office that appear to show they allowed the vendor, Elevate Strategies, to help tailor the scope of work on the project before putting it out for bid.

The documents — reviewed by Houston Public Media and first reported by ABC 13 — also detail text message exchanges between the staffers and Hidalgo herself, which appear to show Hidalgo was aware of the coordination.

The warrants came to light last Friday when Texas Rangers raided the Harris County Administration Building in downtown Houston, where they seized cellphones, laptops and desktop computers for senior staffers Aaron Dunn, Wallis Nader and Alex Triantaphyllis.

No charges have been filed, and there have been no arrests, but the Texas Rangers confirmed Friday the investigation is ongoing.

According to texts laid out in the warrant, Nader and Triantaphyllis first started floating the name of Felicity Pereyra — listed in the documents as founder and sole manager of Elevate, which previously contracted with the county for U.S. Census outreach — on Jan. 7, 2021. In the coming days, the two went back and forth on a proposed scope of work that would best match Pereyra’s experience, according to court records.

On Jan. 13 of last year, court documents allege Hidalgo herself received a draft, and a day later, confirmed she “took a stab” at it, mentioning Pereyra by name as the office worked through that scope of work.

“What I don’t know is — whether these folks will be in charge of the data or whether Felicity can do the disparities data too — whether these folks will be in charge of operational advice, for example whether we need to have roving teams or something like that,” the documents read in part.

One of Hidalgo’s attorneys, Eric Gerard, denied any wrongdoing in a statement Friday.

“The misleading storyline of today's release is the latest act of political theater from a politically motivated investigation,” Gerard wrote in an email. “Ultimately, this was about dedicated public servants trying to get the best team to fight COVID-19 in Harris County. Since she came into office, Judge Hidalgo has held herself and her staff to the highest ethical standards and is the only official to refuse donations from all County vendors.”

The warrants also allege Triantaphyllis shared with Pereyra a document called “Vaccine-related community engagement scope.” Dunn confirmed that was the same document he used for the Request for Proposal, investigators said — also known as an RFP, the officials call for bids. But he denied any knowledge of communication between his colleagues and the vendor.

“Dunn confirmed in his opinion that would be inappropriate,” court documents say.

Internal Elevate emails outlined in the court documents also show Pereyra confirming she had been invited to bid on the contract and claiming she had a good relationship with Hidalgo’s office, allegedly writing, “I feel really good about my chances in landing the project (they asked me to design the program beforehand but then were told to go to RFP), so I’m just starting to build a team.”

Five people were tasked with scoring the proposals, including Dunn, Nader and Triantaphyllis.

Elevate’s bid came in second, with a score of 40.4%. The first-place bid, UT Health, came in at 46.8%.

Despite that, Elevate won the contract. According to a staff report detailed in the court documents, UT Health was rejected because previous community outreach projects they took on “have not been shown to be successful.”

Text messages collected by the investigators show the Hidalgo staffers speaking negatively about UT Health before the process was completed.

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

In a separate message a few weeks later, court documents show Dunn asking Triantaphyllis if he can attend an RFP outreach meeting.

“No. Take it away,” he allegedly responds. “And don’t let UT get it.”

Nader did not respond to a request for comment. An email to Triantaphyllis returned with a reply indicating he would be out of office until Monday, while an email to Dunn returned an out-of-office reply indicating he no longer worked for Hidalgo. Attorney information for the three was not immediately available.

The selection process has been controversial since an Aug. 24 Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, in which Republican Commissioner Jack Cagle openly criticized Hidalgo for choosing Elevate, calling it a “one-person shop” unequipped for the job.

Hidalgo shot back, calling that characterization a “bold-faced lie” and sparking a heated back-and-forth between the two.

“I didn’t know who was selected until the person was selected, the vendor was selected,” Hidalgo said at the time. “Once the vendor was selected, I learned it was the same vendor that did some of our Census outreach, which was very robust. That could not have been done by a one-person firm.”

“Bring it on because there’s nothing here,” Hidalgo said.

Weeks later, the contract was canceled.

Additional reporting by Andrew Schneider.

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