Criminal JusticeLocal NewsHarris County’s Noriega Out as Head of Universal Services Amid Sexual Harassment Allegations

Leaked documents indicate Noriega refused to attend training after facing accusations of sexual harassment.
May 16, 2023

After a tumultuous term as executive director of Harris County Universal Services, Rick Noriega is out after he was accused of sexual harassment and refused to comply with orders to undergo training.

“I am supporting the decision by the county administrator to dismiss a county employee due to failure or refusal to complete important mandated training that was ordered back in April 11th, 2023, resulting from a substantiated sexual harassment allegation made against him,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo after an executive session of the commissioners court that lasted more than an hour.

Hidalgo did not name Noriega in her comments, but multiple sources familiar with the situation have confirmed Noriega was the employee in question. Additionally, The Texan has obtained documents indicating that on April 11, 2023, former County Administrator David Berry notified Noriega that there were serious allegations of sexual harassment against him. Berry instructed Noriega to attend one-on-one training with the Human Resources Department.

In a second email dated April 26, Berry wrote, “As of this morning, I had not heard any response from you since the date of my letter.”

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“When we did speak this morning, you indicated that you did not intend to take these required trainings,” he added.

According to other documents provided to The Texan, Noriega filed a complaint against his accuser claiming she had made “false and malicious complaints.” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee responded on Tuesday morning that after conducting an investigation, he found “no evidence to support the claim” that the accuser’s sexual harassment complaint was “false or malicious.”

A former state representative for Houston’s House District 145 from 1998 to 2009, Noriega was brought in as the interim director for the county’s Universal Services Department in 2020 and approved as permanent director in July 2021.

As a member of the Texas National Guard, Noriega earned the rank of Major General and thus uses the title “General Noriega.”

Noriega faced intense scrutiny in 2022 after the county’s criminal justice data system JWEB failed when Universal Services attempted to conduct a maintenance procedure.

The JWEB failure prevented Harris County’s law enforcement officers from running license plates or accessing criminal records in the field, and halted processing of arrested suspects. Consequently, officials at the county’s Joint Processing Center released 102 suspects since they could not hold probable cause hearings.

District Attorney Kim Ogg told commissioners that later that weekend a magistrate ordered the release of another 200 suspects on personal bonds of either $10,000 or zero dollars “regardless of what offense they were charged with whether it was murder or there was DWI.”

In questions about the JWEB failure, Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) noted that 23 experienced employees had left the Universal Services technology department in the past two years.

Berry announced his resignation last month after less than two years in his post as county administrator. The commissioners court appointed Diana Ramirez to serve as the interim.

Berry did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.

While declining to name Noriega, Hidalgo said the county needed to have a conversation about the “culture of sexism that might have been tolerated but no longer will be.”

“I want every county employee and their daughters and their granddaughters and their sisters to know that sexual harassment and sexism will not be tolerated in Harris County,” said Hidalgo.

“If you feel you were a victim of sexual harassment, we need you to file a formal complaint with human resources and risk management and request an investigation and that will be handled independently and with professionalism.”

Hidalgo then added, “In this courtroom, I’ve been groped. Not by anybody here present.”

Hidalgo made her remarks at about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday afternoon. At the time of publication, Noriega was still listed on the county’s website as the executive director of Universal Services.

After the conclusion of the Tuesday commissioners court meeting, Ramsey released the following statement: “This is an example of how dysfunctional the county administration system is, which was created by this court majority. This case went on for five months with terribly weak recourse. The court should have been briefed when it happened. The investigation should’ve been done quickly, and the matter resolved immediately afterwards. That is what our trusted and valued employees deserve.”

Noriega later released a statement of his own: “I have never been more offended or insulted in my 40 years of public service. I intend to sue Judge Lina Hidalgo and her Acting County Administrator for their retaliatory and defamatory conduct. Harris County deserves better leaders.”

According to the Universal Services website, Chief Information Officer Sindhu Menon will now serve as the interim executive director.

Update: Ramsey and Noriega have both released statements following the Harris County Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday afternoon, and Sindhu Menon will now serve as interim executive director of Universal Services.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Noriega’s position in Universal Services. We regret the error.

Copies of Berry’s and Menefee’s letters to Noriega can be found below.


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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a 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.