Since last Fall, a grand jury assembled by the district attorney’s office has been investigating allegations that members of county Judge Lina Hidalgo’s staff may have interfered in the vendor evaluation process to steer the lucrative contract to a highly placed Democratic political strategist.
In November of 2021, the grand jury issued subpoenas to all five members of the commissioners court and a number of staff members, reportedly seeking communications related to the contract, including communications with vendors who submitted proposals.
Although grand juries are typically authorized for a three-month investigation, the grand jury investigating the vaccine outreach contract has been extended and is now in the fourth month of investigation.
While a grand jury subpoena may request witness appearance and a variety of materials, an investigator must demonstrate probable cause to obtain a search warrant. According to the Texas criminal code, the investigator’s sworn affidavit showing probable cause will become public information after the warrant is returned, but a judge may order the affidavit sealed for several reasons, including the possibility that evidence might be destroyed.
In response to questions about the grand jury’s latest action Dane Schiller, spokesperson for the district attorney’s office, said in a statement, “A judge signed search warrants, which are legal authorization to search for and seize potential evidence of a crime. Out of fairness for all parties involved, we have no additional comment at this time.”
In August of 2021, The Texan first reported that Harris County had awarded an $11 million vaccine outreach contract to Elevate Strategies, a data analytics firm owned by Felicity Pereyra. 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.
In the following weeks, the public learned that Pereyra operated Elevate Strategies out of a small Montrose apartment and that she was the sole employee. When Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) posed questions about how a “one-woman” firm had won the substantial contract, Judge Lina Hidalgo accused Cagle of telling a “bold-faced lie.”
Later, emails obtained by The Texan indicate that on January 27, 2021, Hidalgo staffers Alex Triantaphyllis and Aaron Dunn had requested significant changes to the experience and qualifications required to bid on the project. In some instances, the two requested reductions in the number of years of experience needed but also changed “required” to “preferred,” and removed a requirement for experience in market research services entirely.
FOX 26 Houston also publicized scoring documents indicating that Pereyra’s Elevate Strategies had not been the top-scoring vendor, but instead the University of Texas (UT) Health Science Center had earned a score of 240 to Elevate Strategies’ 204. Records also indicated that Elevate Strategies had initially bid $19.3 million for the project, while UT Health Science Center had proposed $7.5 million.
In September, Hidalgo announced the contract had become too “politicized,” and that she would move to cancel. Although the county had already paid more than $500,000 to Pereyra’s company, commissioners unanimously voted to cancel the contract.
Through her personal attorney Ashlee McFarlane, Hidalgo has denied any wrongdoing. “This is nothing but political theater since the devices would have been provided on request. What’s missing is any shred of evidence, but what’s in abundance is politics,” said McFarlane in a statement.
Although Hidalgo has fended off multiple Democratic primary challengers in her quest for re-election this year, she will face one of two Republican challengers now headed for a runoff election: Alexandra Del Moral Mealer and Vidal Martinez, both of whom responded to the search warrants.
“This controversial deal never passed the ‘smell test’ and it occurred over six months ago, and Harris County taxpayers still don’t know the truth. Time and time again, we see that Lina Hidalgo prioritizes political patronage over the interests of Harris County,” said Mealer. “It shouldn’t take subpoenas to force Lina Hidalgo to tell the truth about an $11 million contract given to a political crony.”
“After months of withholding evidence, Lina Hidalgo’s office is being raided by law enforcement. Today, Texas Rangers have seized boxes of documents and evidence on the Elevate Strategies case where Lina awarded an $11 million contract to her political crony.”
Martinez called for Hidalgo’s immediate resignation “in order to restore confidence in our county government.”
“As a former federal prosecutor and international attorney, I have spent decades handling national and worldwide investigations on corruption, and as County Judge, I will ferret out corruption at Commissioners Court.”
As of Tuesday morning, the county district clerk’s office did not have an update on the status of the search warrants and the probable cause affidavits were not available to the public.
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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.