Politics

Lina Hidalgo staffer asks for DA Kim Ogg’s removal from contract investigation over alleged bias

The motion accused Ogg of “blatant and numerous” conflicts of interest.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Harris County DA Kim Ogg requests additional funding for the DA’s office at Commissioners Court on March 22, 2022.

Lawyers for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s chief of staff have asked a judge to disqualify District Attorney Kim Ogg from prosecuting a case involving a controversial COVID-19 outreach contract.

Court documents filed Wednesday accuse Ogg of unprofessional behavior and “blatant and numerous” conflicts of interest, with lawyers for Alex Triantaphyllis arguing the investigation was spurred by Ogg’s public battles with Democrats on commissioners court.

“Ogg opened a grand jury investigation into Judge Hidalgo and her staff merely because the Commissioners Court decided to allocate funds to programs and priorities other than the District Attorney's Office,” the motion reads. “Ogg's actions create a clearly impermissible conflict of interest.”

The motion to disqualify Ogg cites the very public feud between the DA and Hidalgo in recent years, which has only gotten more personal in the past few weeks.

Hidalgo herself has predicted that the DA would seek her indictment in the coming weeks.

In a statement, Ogg spokesperson John Donnelly said the DA was preparing a response to the motion.

"We will be filing a response in a timely manner to address the multiple inaccuracies in this motion,” Donnelly said. “We look forward to addressing this in a court of law."

Prosecutors allege the three senior staff members — Triantaphyllis, Wallis Nader and Aaron Dunn — used their positions in county government to steer an $11 million contract to a preferred vendor.

Hidalgo has argued that charges against her staff are misleading and politically motivated, and has refused to fire the staffers at the center of the probe. Triantaphyllis and Nader both still work in Hidalgo’s office, though Dunn has since left.

The $11 million contract went out to bid in February of last year — meaning the county solicited proposals and used a scoring matrix to decide which company was best suited to the project in a competitive process.

Despite scoring lower and costing more than another project, a proposal from Elevate Strategies came out on top, raising eyebrows from Hidalgo's critics who saw the company as a partisan organization that supports local Democrats. The contract was awarded to Elevate in June 2021 with a 4-1 vote in commissioners court, but was later pulled in September after widespread criticism.

Then in March of this year, Texas Rangers raided the Harris County Administration Building. Unsealed warrants revealed investigators seized mobile phones and computers, and sought access to Google accounts belonging to the three staffers.

Affidavits attached to those warrants detailed correspondence between the three and Elevate Strategies founder Felicity Pereyra. Text messages appear to show the staffers coordinating to tailor the contract to Elevate's strengths.

The affidavits also detail communications between the staffers and Hidalgo, which appear to show Hidalgo was aware of the alleged coordination.

But those court records also show an incomplete picture of the communications, according to documents shared with Houston Public Media and other news outlets earlier this year.

According to those documents — which appear to include the complete communications referenced in the affidavits and a detailed chronology of events — the staffers were discussing two different COVID-19 contracts.

While the $11 million contract was part of a competitive bid process, Hidalgo's staff was originally trying to recruit Pereyra for a lower-paying COVID-19 data analysis job — one that did not require a competitive process, according to the previously unrevealed documents. Much of the communication in the affidavits that appears to reference the $11 million project is actually in reference to the second contract, according to Hidalgo's lawyers.

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.

Documents also lay out an alternate explanation for Elevate's selection over UT Health, the company that scored higher via the scoring matrix: while it's true the large health center did perform better in the initial scoring round, the review committee appeared to be unimpressed with how UT Health handled another county COVID project, Harris Saves.

Ogg has long been a vocal critic of Hidalgo and other democrats on commissioners court for denying her requests for more money to hire prosecutors. Democrats have raised budgets for law enforcement agencies — including the DA's office — though they've fallen short of requests.

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