On Monday, a grand jury issued indictments for Hidalgo’s Chief of Staff Alexander Triantaphyllis,
Policy Director Wallis Nader, and former aide Aaron Dunn, each on felony counts of tampering with a governmental record and misuse of official information.
The indictments followed an investigation into a lucrative contract awarded to Elevate Strategies, a one-woman firm owned by Felicity Pereyra, a highly connected Democratic strategist who previously worked for Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2), Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and the Democratic National Committee.
Through a randomized process, the county assigned the cases to the 351st District Court under Judge Natalia Cornelio, prompting concerns about Cornelio’s connections to Hidalgo and other persons related to the investigation.
First elected to office in 2020, Cornelio had previously served as the director of legal affairs for Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) and as the Director of Criminal Justice Reform at the Texas Civil Rights Project, where one of the defendants, Wallis Nader, was also working as a staff attorney.
According to campaign finance reports, Cornelio received a small donation of $100 from Elevate Strategies owner Pereyra in 2020, but also a $1,000 donation from Neeraj Tandon, one of the vendors Pereyra had subcontracted to manage the vaccine outreach contract.
Other donors listed on Cornelio’s reports include Hidalgo’s legal counsel Kathryn Kase and Hidalgo’s recently hired criminal defense attorney Ashlee McFarlane.
Since Cornelio had a scheduled absence this week, the arraignment proceedings for Dunn, Triantaphyllis, and Nader fell to visiting Judge Vanessa Velazquez, who approved a $3,500 bond for each. Velazquez, a Republican who previously presided over the 183rd District Court, instructed the three not to discuss the case but permitted them to continue to work together at the county.
Considering the affiliations, Cornelio could recuse herself from the case, or the administrative judge presiding over the 11th Administrative Judicial Region, Susan Brown, could transfer the case to another judge.
A defiant Hidalgo announced Tuesday that she would not suspend the three defendants from working for the county and called the accusations “unfair” and “political dirty tricks.”
“I have not seen anything to suggest that my staff did anything but work tirelessly for the people of Harris County,” Hidalgo posted on social media. “They will remain on my team.”
After the Texas Rangers executed search warrants to seize computers and phones from county administrative offices, Dunn was moved from Hidalgo’s office to a new position with the Harris County Flood Control District and given a bump in salary from $111,000 to $125,000.
Last August, after Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) posed questions about the contract award to a “one-person shop,” Hidalgo accused him of telling a “bold-faced lie” and invited an investigation saying, “bring it on, because there is nothing here.”
Later, public records indicated that Dunn, Nader, and Triantaphyllis, had exchanged emails with Purchasing Agent Dwight Dopslauf requesting alterations to vendor requirements for the vaccine outreach project and that of the four vendors seeking the work the University of Texas (UT) Health Science Center had scored significantly higher than Elevate Strategies and at a much lower cost.
Further investigation from the grand jury assembled by District Attorney Kim Ogg resulted in search warrant affidavits documenting communications between Dunn, Nader, and Triantaphyllis with both Hidalgo and Pereyra. Text messages exchanged include discussion of creating unspecified work for Pereyra in January 2021 and seem to indicate Pereyra had a hand in crafting the description of the work she would later bid on.
Further communications include Triantaphyllis instructing Dunn to “slam the door shut on UT” after the vendor scoring process had been completed.
Calling controversy over the project “politicized,” Hidalgo agreed to cancel the contract last September, but last month commissioners learned the county had paid Pereyra $1.4 million. The county attorney’s office said they were seeking reimbursements.
Prior to her surprise victory in 2018, Hidalgo had worked as a medical interpreter at the Texas Medical Center in Houston and volunteered for the Texas Civil Rights Project. A graduate of Stanford University, Hidalgo also worked for international media group Internews.
Cornelio was also one of several judges former Texas Republican Party Chair Allen West called to impeach last year due to her release of repeat violent suspects.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer 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.