Judge Natalia Cornelio of the 351st District Court filed orders of voluntary recusal Tuesday evening, writing that although she believed she could “render a fair and impartial judgment,” she would recuse herself “so that the State of Texas, the Defendant, and the public will maintain trust in the judiciary, and to avoid any appearance of impropriety.”
Last week, 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.
Days later, the cases were assigned through a reportedly randomized process to Cornelio’s court, prompting concerns over the Democratic judge’s relationships with persons involved in the case.
Prior to her 2020 election, Cornelio 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 defendant Nader was also working as a staff attorney.
Campaign finance reports for Cornelio show that she received donations from Felicity Pereyra, the sole owner and employee of the data analytics company, Elevate Strategies, at the center of the investigation.
Additionally, Hidalgo’s legal counsel Kathryn Kase and Hidalgo’s recently hired criminal defense attorney Ashlee McFarlane contributed to Cornelio’s campaign.
Since Cornelio had been on a scheduled absence last week, the arraignment proceedings for Dunn, Nader, and Triantaphyllis fell to visiting Judge Vanessa Velazquez, who approved bonds of $3,500 for each of the three defendants. Velazquez instructed Dunn, Nader, and Triantaphyllis not to discuss the case but permitted them to continue to work together at the county.
On Tuesday, Triantaphyllis was on hand to advise Hidalgo as she presided over a meeting of the Harris County Elections Commission.
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.
According to the recusal documents, the cases will now be referred to the Administrative Judge of the Felony Division, currently listed as Judge Kelli Johnson of the 178th District Court.
Johnson, a Democrat first elected in 2016, could reassign the case as early as Wednesday. There are 23 felony district court judges in Harris County, all of whom are Democrats.
The indictments surround an $11 million COVID-19 vaccine outreach contract awarded to Pereyra’s company last summer. After news broke that Hidalgo’s staff had directed purchasing agent Dwight Dopslauf to alter vendor experience requirements and disqualify higher scoring University of Texas (UT) Health Science Center, Hidalgo moved to cancel the contract saying it had been “politicized.”
Affidavits filed with the county later showed that the indicted staffers had been in communication with both Hidalgo and Pereyra to create a scope or job description weeks before the county announced the project. Other communications document Triantaphyllis instructing Dunn to “slam the door shut on UT” after the scoring process.
Although Hidalgo announced the contract would be canceled on September 8, 2021, the auditor’s office reports that the county paid Elevate Strategies $539,363 that day, and another $885,874 on September 16, 2021.
The issue of impartial judges has impacted other Harris County Courts as well. District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office has filed a 21-page motion for recusal of Judge Jason Luong in a continuous sexual abuse of a child case, and has sought to suspend self-proclaimed socialist Judge Franklin Bynum for bias in his management of misdemeanor cases. Primary challenger Erika Ramirez defeated Bynum last month and his term expires in December 2022.
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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.