Last month a grand jury handed down indictments for Hidalgo’s Chief of Staff Alex Triantaphyllis, Policy Director Wallis Nader, and former aide Aaron Dunn on charges of Misuse of Official Information and Tampering with a Record related to an $11 million COVID-19 vaccine outreach contract.
At an arraignment hearing on April 12, visiting Judge Vanessa Velazquez approved $3,500 bond for each defendant and forbade them from discussing the case with one another.
Velazquez also allegedly forbade defendants from participating in any contract procurement activities, but there was not a court reporter on hand to transcribe the proceedings and release conditions were not documented in court records, setting up a dispute between prosecutors and defense attorneys over the conditions for bond.
According to a motion filed by Harris County Assistant District Attorney Michael Levine, on April 13, the day after the arraignments, Triantaphyllis represented Hidalgo in a meeting regarding use of federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds and voted to approve a scope description and procurement guidelines for a child-care related contract.
At a bond condition hearing last Friday, Triantaphyllis’ defense attorney, Marla Poirot, argued that prosecutors misrepresented bond conditions set by Velazquez and the ARPA Steering Committee did not violate bond conditions, since it was not an actual Request for Proposal committee.
In March, Texas Rangers executed search warrants at county administrative offices and seized phones and computers belonging to Hidalgo’s staff. Days later, the county transferred Dunn to a higher paying position with the Harris County Flood Control District while Nader and Triantaphyllis remained at work in Hidalgo’s administration.
In court last week, Dunn’s attorney argued that his new position required him to work with county contracts as well.
Criminal charges against the three surround a contract awarded last summer to Elevate Strategies, a one-woman data analytics firm owned by Felicity Pereyra. Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) questioned the award last August after reports revealed that Pereyra had been the former deputy campaign manager for Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) and had worked for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Following revelations that Hidalgo’s staff had sought to alter vendor requirements and had moved to disqualify the University of Texas Health Science Center, Hidalgo agreed to cancel the contract, saying it had become too politicized.
Despite the cancellation announcement in September, the county paid Pereyra $1.4 million on the contract that same month in an accelerated process that has raised further questions.
Search warrant affidavits filed by the Texas Rangers allege that Dunn, Nader, and Triantaphyllis communicated with Pereyra for input on the scope of the project and other matters. Triantaphyllis is also alleged to have instructed his fellow staffers to “slam the door shut on UT,” after the university scored higher than Elevate Strategies in the vendor selection process.
Hidalgo and her attorneys insist that she and her staff have not violated the law regarding the Elevate Strategies contract. Hidalgo dismissed the communications included in the affidavits as “private” and “taken out of context.”
This week Hidalgo decried the investigations as a campaign season effort and political vendetta on the part of fellow Democrat and District Attorney Kim Ogg.
“It’s no coincidence this is happening in the middle of my re-election campaign,” claimed Hidalgo. “That in and of itself should make very clear that it’s politically motivated.”
Hidalgo also asserted that Triantaphyllis’ attorney only learned of the district attorney’s office motion on bail via a member of the media.
“If there’s anyone who thinks I’m going to be deterred or who thinks I’m going to be dissuaded by this, they’ve underestimated me,” Hidalgo added.
Hidalgo fended off five challengers in the 2022 Democratic Primary and will face Alexandra del Moral Mealer or Vidal Martinez, depending on the outcome of a Republican Primary runoff election later this month.
Initially the county’s randomized process threw the cases into the 351st District Court under Judge Natalia Cornelio, who was on leave at the time of the arraignments. But revelations of Cornelio’s close ties to Hidalgo, Nader, and Pereyra prompted her to file for recusal, and the cases have now been assigned to the 174th District Court under Hazel Jones.
Jones has set a status hearing for the case on June 16, 2022.
Update: In response to Hidalgo’s accusations, the district attorney’s office released the following statement: “We will try this case, like every other criminal case, in a court of law before a jury of peers, and we will look to them for a fair outcome. When all the evidence is seen by a trial court, justice will prevail; our work continues.”
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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.