“A lot of what was released was out of context, was private messages, private emails, a single side of what took place,” Hidalgo told reporters.
Last Friday, the district clerk posted three sworn affidavits Texas Rangers filed to obtain search warrants for county offices. The affidavits quote multiple communications between Hidalgo staffers Aaron Dunn, Wallis Nader, and Alex Triantaphyllis, all of whom served on the procurement committee for a COVID-19 vaccine outreach program.
According to the affidavits, staffers were in communication about hiring Felicity Pereyra of Elevate Strategies for unspecified work in January of 2021. On January 14, Hidalgo texted about the scope of a project mentioning “Felicity.” Triantaphyllis later texted Nader saying, “She was trying to add to Felicity’s scope relating to engaging community groups and stuff.”
Further communications indicate that Pereyra had input into creating the scope of work for the project long before other vendors were invited to submit proposals. After four vendors, including the University of Texas (UT) Health Science Center, had submitted proposals, Triantaphyllis texted Nader in April of 2021 that they needed to “slam the door shut on UT.”
Hidalgo said she could not respond directly to the allegations in the sworn affidavits since there was an ongoing investigation but emphasized that she had “followed the law.”
In response to a reporter’s question about hiring a private criminal defense attorney, Hidalgo answered that she needed proper legal staff to represent her “as anyone would.”
Hidalgo’s attorney has asserted that the search warrants confuse different projects, and that some of the communications do not refer to the vaccine outreach project at all.
In August of 2021, The Texan first reported that Harris County had awarded an $11 million vaccine outreach contract to Pereyra’s Elevate Strategies. Prior to founding the company in 2019, Pereyra had previously served as the deputy campaign manager for county Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2), as well as the analytics director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and director of data for the Democratic National Committee.
Later, documents revealed that the UT Health Science Center had earned a higher score from the evaluation committee and had projected a lower cost at $7.5 million.
Although she initially denied knowing anything about which firms had applied and that those wishing to investigate should “bring it on,” by September, Hidalgo announced the contract had become too “politicized,” and commissioners court unanimously voted to cancel the contract later that month.
During this week’s meeting of the commissioners court, First Assistant County Attorney Jay Aiyer said the county had paid Pereyra about $1.4 million before the contract was canceled. Of that, about $200,000 has been repaid, and Aiyer said his office was working to obtain another $1 million in repayment.
Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) told Aiyer to “go for every penny that was paid,” thus seeking a full repayment.
The two Republicans headed for a May runoff election for a chance to unseat Hidalgo in November, have both responded to the latest revelations.
“We now have confirmation in black and white of something that has been clear for six months — that the fix was in,” said Alexandra Del Moral Mealer. “Lina Hidalgo’s office was apparently handpicking a partisan political operative to receive more than $11 million in tax dollars, all the while pretending that it was a fair, open bid.”
“The Harris County Judge’s Office is corrupt, it’s time for Lina and her staff to tell the truth, own up to their behavior, and resign,” added Mealer.
“Last Friday, the [search warrants] revealed text messages and emails showing Lina and top county staffers gave the chosen vendor, a highly connected Democrat operative, insider information long before the bid selection process began,” Vidal Martinez wrote to supporters in an email.
“As a former federal prosecutor and international attorney, I’ve spent decades handling national and worldwide investigations on corruption,” Martinez added. “When I am County Judge, I intend to ferret out corruption at Commissioners Court and restore transparency and integrity to Harris County. It’s time for someone with experience and proven leadership to take the reins.”
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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.