In addition, invoices indicate that the contractor paid more than half a million of the taxpayer funds to data firms assisting progressive candidates with campaigns and voter turnout.
In 2021, the county awarded an $11 million contract to Elevate Strategies, owned by highly-connected Democratic strategist Felicity Pereyra. Pereyra had previously worked for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and Commissioner Adrian Garcia’s (D- Pct. 2) campaign when he ran for mayor of Houston.
After revelations that Hidalgo’s staff had sought to alter experience requirements for potential vendors, and had instructed the purchasing department to disqualify the University of Texas Health Science Center, Hidalgo announced she would cancel the contract. But the public later learned that the county paid out $1.4 million to Pereyra’s firm after the date of cancellation.
During a March 2022 meeting of the Harris County commissioners court, First Assistant County Attorney Jay Aiyer told commissioners that Elevate Strategies had repaid about $200,000 and he expected another $1 million in repayment soon.
In response to queries from FOX26 political reporter Greg Groogan, the county attorney’s office responded that they had recovered $600,000, but refused to comply with an open records request and appealed to Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office in an effort to keep the repayment amounts out of the public eye.
Attorney and former Houston mayoral candidate Bill King sought records from the county auditor, which showed that while the county had paid $1.425 million, Elevate Strategies has only returned $208,000.
Among invoices Elevate Strategies submitted to the county are expenditures of $538,057 for software and canvassers from known Democratic voter turnout groups Civis Analytics and NGP VAN EveryAction.
Founded by Dan Wagner, former chief analytics officer of Obama for America, Civis Analytics has worked to increase voter turnout for a variety of progressive candidates and organizations including Battleground Texas. The group touts data collection that can be compiled into individual voter records for use in political campaigns.
Likewise, NGP VAN’s website advertises the company as “the leading technology provider to Democratic and progressive campaigns and organizations.”
Last year, Hidalgo defended the use of political campaigning groups, saying they had the tools to conduct the outreach. But Rice University professor and political analyst Mark Jones told The Texan there is not a great deal of overlap between the kinds of residents targeted.
“Those are companies focused exclusively on likely voters, which is not the same thing as a vulnerable population that would be the target of a COVID vaccine outreach campaign,” said Jones. “The Civis Analytics and NGP data sets are not designed to reach those targets. They are designed to reach people who are likely to turnout in the 2022 county judge election.”
Jones also noted that Elevate Strategies contract lists as a sub-contractor the Texas Organizing Project, which is another group that conducts canvassing and campaigning on behalf of Democratic candidates, including Hidalgo.
After the county approved the contract with Elevate Strategies last year, Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) expressed concern over how the data would be used and asked who the subcontractors for a “one-woman firm” would be, but was assured that the program would focus on vaccine outreach, not political data.
Following revelations that the contract hired Democratic campaign data firms, Cagle told The Texan, “What we had been told about Elevate Strategies, now based on public documents, turns out to be not so.”
After a grand jury investigation in coordination with the Texas Rangers, three Hidalgo staffers — Alex Triantaphyllis, Wallis Nader, and Aaron Dunn — were each indicted on felony charges of records tampering and misuse of official information. Hidalgo has stated she expects to be indicted in the matter.
“Here we are with a contract, with three people that have been indicted, and yet they still have most of the $1.4 million,” said Cagle. “It was spent on exactly what we were promised it would not be spent on: to aid in the political process.”
A copy of an Elevate Strategies invoice can be found below.
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.