Commissioners voted to approve the contract with Elevate Strategies in June 2021, but in August learned the sole owner and only employee of the firm was Felicity Pereyra, a former campaign manager for Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2). Pereyra had also worked for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Further investigations revealed that members of Judge Lina Hidalgo’s staff had requested changes to experience and qualifications required to bid on the project, and that of the four entities submitting proposals, the University of Texas (UT) Health Science Center earned a significantly higher score at a lower cost.
Although Judge Lina Hidalgo announced on September 8, 2021 that she would move to cancel the contract, saying it had been “politicized,” public records first published by former Houston mayoral candidate and lawyer Bill King indicate the county made a payment of $539,363 that same day.
On September 14, the commissioners court voted unanimously to cancel the contract, but records show the county made two more payments to Elevate Strategies again on September 16 for $885,874 each, bringing the total paid out to the data analytics firm housed in a Montrose apartment to $1.4 million.
Pereyra signed the contract with the county on July 27, 2021, but appears to have submitted a first invoice for payment just five days later for $539,363, although contract terms state, “in accordance with the Texas Constitution, the county is prohibited from paying contractor in advance for any of the services or deliverables.”
Two more invoices were submitted by Pereya on August 28 and September 1, both of which the county paid just a few weeks later after the contract had been canceled. On several occasions over the past few years commissioners have discussed what was described as a slow payout process for many county vendors.
“The speed at which those bills got paid was blazing fast,” Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) told The Texan.
During a March 2022 meeting of the commissioners court, First Assistant County Attorney Jay Aiyer told commissioners Elevate Strategies had repaid about $200,000 and he was expecting another $500,000 in repayment soon, with possibly a second $500,000 later. Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) urged Aiyer to seek full repayment.
Following news of the payments, Republican runoff candidate for Harris County Judge Alexandra del Moral Mealer issued a statement saying it appeared Hidalgo’s office “has committed a far more serious breach of public trust than steering a contract to a partisan ally, which in itself is bad enough.”
Mealer questioned why payments were made for work not yet performed, why the final contract had not been presented to the commissioners court, and why significant payments were made after the announcement of the contract.
“It’s no surprise that Hidalgo’s political corruption and cronyism extended passed the cancellation of the contract. As a former federal prosecutor I will identify and rid Harris County of this corruption,” Republican candidate for Harris County judge Vidal Martinez said in a statement to The Texan.
Neither Hidalgo’s office nor County Administrator David Berry’s office responded to requests for comment prior to the publication of this article.
Last fall, the district attorney’s office assembled a grand jury to investigate the contract award process, and last month the Texas Rangers executed search warrants at county offices seizing computers and phones containing communications about the project.
Search warrant affidavits documented communications about a project between Hidalgo, several staff members, and Pereyra as early as January 2021, long before the county invited vendors to submit requests for proposals. Hidalgo’s Chief of Staff Alexander Triantaphyllis also texted a member of the project selection committee that they “needed to slam the door shut on UT.”
Last week, the grand jury handed down indictments for three Hidalgo staffers, Aaron Dunn, Wallis Nader, and Triantaphyllis, each for felony charges of tampering with a government record and misuse of official information.
Hidalgo has maintained that her office did nothing wrong, asserted that the communications detailed in the search warrant affidavits were “private” and “taken out of context,” and has rejected calls to suspend or terminate the three indicted staff members.
Shortly after the Texas Rangers executed the search warrants, Dunn was transferred from Hidalgo’s office to a position with the Harris County Flood Control District and his salary was increased from $111,000 to $125,000.
The criminal cases for Dunn, Nader, and Triantaphyllis were assigned to the 351st District Court under Judge Natalia Cornelio, but following revelations that Cornelio has close ties to Nader and accepted campaign donations from Hidalgo’s attorneys and Pereyra, the cases could be assigned to another judge as early as Monday.
Update: The article has been updated to include a comment from Vidal Martinez that was provided after publishing.
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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.