Politics

Lina Hidalgo accuses DA Kim Ogg of election year politics in COVID outreach contract investigation

Hidalgo accused Ogg of using misleading evidence to obtain search warrants that resulted in the arrest of her chief of staff and two former senior staffers.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo accused District Attorney Kim Ogg of pursuing a political vendetta against Hidalgo’s office on May 17, 2022.

Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday accused District Attorney Kim Ogg of using an investigation into three of Hidalgo’s staff members as a political move to try to push the incumbent county judge out of office.

Hidalgo accused Ogg of leaking out-of-context information about the investigation in an attempt to mislead the public during an election year, and of using misleading evidence to obtain search warrants that resulted in the arrest of her chief of staff and two former senior staffers.

“For whatever reason, she’s just not an ally,” Hidalgo said. “It’s very clear she’s doing this. It’s very clear she has an agenda, and that agenda is political. That agenda is not an objective search for truth, it’s some sort of search and destroy mission.”

In an email, Ogg spokesperson Dane Schiller denied the accusations.

"No one should diminish, degrade or dismiss the hard work of grand jurors who spent five months on this investigation and determined that the defendants should be indicted for two felonies a piece," Schiller said.

Chief of Staff Alex Triantaphyllis, former senior policy director Wallis Nader and former senior adviser Aaron Dunn were charged with records tampering and misuse of official information for what prosecutors say was an attempt to steer an $11 million COVID-19 outreach contract towards a preferred vendor.

Unsealed warrants detail text messages and emails from Triantaphyllis, Nader and Dunn that show communication with Felicity Pereyra, founder of Elevate Strategies, the company that was awarded the contract despite scoring lower in the official selection process than another vendor, and pitching a more expensive proposal.

That contract was eventually pulled after public criticism. Republican Jack Cagle, the lone commissioner to vote against approving the contract, accused Democrats of favoring a partisan organization in awarding the contract.

But while the warrants allege the staffers were in coordination with Elevate to tailor the proposal to the company’s strengths, documents reviewed by Houston Public Media and other news outlets appear to tell a different story.

Text messages and emails appear to show the three staff members discussing two different contracts. In addition to the $11 million COVID-19 outreach project, the three also discussed a COVID data analysis job — a contract position pitched to the Elevate founder before the county even came up with the outreach project, and which she ultimately turned down.

While affidavits attached to the unsealed warrants lay out all of that communication, there’s no acknowledgement from investigators that they’re discussing two unrelated projects.

The result, Hidalgo said, was a “distortion of the facts” from the DA’s office meant to paint a picture of illegal activity despite no wrongdoing.

Hidalgo also accused Ogg of coordinating an attack against her chief of staff, Triantaphyllis. Earlier this month, prosecutors told the judge in Triantaphyllis’ case that he violated his bail conditions by appearing on a county steering committee for future American Rescue Plan Act funded projects.

Attorneys for Triantaphyllis accused Ogg’s office of leaking the information to the press before informing the attorneys themselves. They also argued in a brief that serving on the steering committee did not violate bail conditions laid out by the judge.

“It appears to have been filed to do nothing more than burden and publicly harass (Triantaphyllis), an improper and irresponsible use of the criminal justice system,” the motion argued.

The DA’s office did not directly respond to criticism about the affidavits or the bail motion. The judge in that case has not yet ruled on whether Triantaphyllis violated conditions of his bail.

Ogg has butted heads with Democrats on commissioners court over funding levels for her office. The DA has for years asked for scores of new prosecutors only to have her request rebuffed by commissioners. She has openly criticized commissioners in recent meetings, repeating claims that Democrats are “defunding” law enforcement.

In fact, budgets for county law enforcement have gone up: Ogg’s own office has seen a $12 million increase over the last two years, according to a county budget analysis.

Those same arguments have been made by the two candidates hoping to face Hidalgo in November. Vidal Martinez and Alexandra del Moral Mealer are currently in a runoff in the Republican primary to challenge for the county judge seat in the general election. Both have used similar “defunding” language as part of their platforms — a similarity that was not lost on the county judge.

“It’s okay to politically disagree with someone, it’s okay to decide to ally yourself with the opposite party,” Hidalgo said Tuesday. “It’s okay to have a personal problem with somebody. I don’t know if that’s the case, but it’s not okay to pursue a political vendetta.”

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