Politics

Hidalgo says she won’t fire staffers at the center of an $11 million COVID outreach contract probe

Harris County Lina Hidalgo said she didn’t believe there was enough information to justify firing her employees.

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.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday said she wouldn’t fire high-level county staffers at the center of a criminal probe into an $11 million COVID-19 outreach contract.

Recently unsealed court documents outline communication between three of those staffers and a specific vendor, Elevate Strategies, prior to Elevate winning the contract for a proposed COVID-19 outreach project. The contract was later pulled after public criticism.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Hidalgo said she didn’t believe there was enough information to justify firing her employees.

“I believe that the decision my team made was based on fighting against COVID-19,” she said. “I believe, from where I’m standing, that that was the intention behind the decisions made in my office.”

Texas Rangers raided the Harris County Administration Building on March 11 in search of cellphones and computers used by three senior staffers at the time — Aaron Dunn, Wallis Nader, and Alex Triantaphyllis.

Text messages and emails appear to show the staffers and Elevate founder Felicity Pereyra working together to tailor the scope of work on the project before putting it out for bid, according to court documents. Nader and Triantaphyllis did not respond to previous requests for comment, while an email to Dunn returned an out-of-office reply indicating he no longer worked for Hidalgo. Attorney information for the three employees was not available.

Hidalgo declined to comment on specific details regarding the ongoing criminal investigation, but said the court documents presented information that was “misleading” and “one-sided.”

“I would love to be able to get into specific facts,” she said. “A lot of what a lot of what was released this past Friday was out of context.”

Hidalgo added that she believed the allegations were, in part, politically motivated.

“I know politics when I see politics,” she said. “But I am battle tested, and I am not deterred.”

The comments came during a break in Tuesday’s Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, during which some public speakers openly criticized the county judge for what they perceived as her role in the deal. The court documents outline communication between Hidalgo and the three staffers that appears to show Hidalgo was aware of the coordination with Elevate.

During the meeting, Republican Commissioner Jack Cagle — the one person to vote against the deal in August — pressed First Assistant County Attorney Jay Aiyer on whether the county would get back any of the $1.4 million the county already paid to Elevate during their month under contract.

Aiyer responded that the county would likely get back as much as $1.2 million, but that some of the outreach work had already been done.

“With any vendor, if they’re under contract for a period of time, they incurred legitimate expenses to which they would be entitled to by law,” Aiyer said. “We can not deny them that amount.”

“I encourage you to go for every penny that was paid,” Cagle said.

Additional reporting by Jack Williams and Paul DeBenedetto.

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