Local NewsTaxes & SpendingUnder Pressure, Harris County Judge Hidalgo Announces Plan to Cancel $11 Million Contract to One-Woman Firm

Although the county has already paid $539,000, a firestorm of controversy over a contract awarded to a well-connected Democrat has prompted county Judge Hidalgo to agree to seek cancellation.
September 9, 2021
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Facing mounting public criticism and threats of investigation, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) announced Wednesday she would move to cancel a controversial $11 million contract awarded to a highly connected Democrat for COVID-19 vaccine outreach.

“The way it’s being politicized is getting in the way of getting people vaccinated,” said Hidalgo.

Last week, the public learned that Hidalgo had assembled a five-person committee consisting of three of her own staffers and two others from the county health department to review proposals and select a vendor.

Even prior to the solicitation of proposals, emails obtained by The Texan show that Hidalgo staffers Alex Triantaphyllis and Aaron Dunn had requested significant changes to 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 some requirements altogether.  

Although the committee awarded the $10.9 million contract to Elevate Strategies, LLC, scoring documents obtained by FOX 26 reporter Greg Groogan reveal that initially the University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHSC) earned the highest score with 240 points and a project cost of $7.5 million. Elevate Strategies had only scored 204 points while bidding $19.3 million.

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According to Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), UTHSC employees told his staff that they had been prepared to give a lengthy presentation and to answer specific questions about the project, but that Hidalgo’s vetting committee met with them for less than an hour, had not viewed the full presentation, and did not ask questions.

Later the contract vetting committee informed county purchasing agent DeWight Dopslauf that UTHSC had been disqualified for underperforming on another project for the county. 

“I am looking into the selection process and requesting documentation from UT,” Bettencourt told The Texan.

In August, commissioners learned that Elevate Strategies, LLC., was a one-person company owned by Felicity Pereyra. Formerly the deputy campaign manager for Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2), Pereyra had also previously worked for Democrat candidates Wendy Davis and Hillary Clinton and served as the director of data for the Democratic National Committee.

Only founded in 2019, Pereyra listed a Montrose apartment as the business address for Elevate Strategies and stated on her website and on social media that she was the sole employee. 

Hidalgo’s communications director Rafael Lemaitre, a former Obama administration spokesperson, said the selection committee had concerns over UTHSC’s proposed use of some medical students to conduct outreach efforts. 

While UTHSC has a staff of approximately 5,600, Elevate Strategies has been advertising to hire part-time canvassers for 29 hours per week at $25 per hour.  

At a contentious August 24 meeting, Hidalgo accused Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) of telling a “bold-faced lie” when he referred to Elevate Strategies as a “one-woman company” as he asked questions about who the sub-contractors would be. 

Denying any unethical actions, Hidalgo challenged Cagle to investigate, saying, “Bring it on.”

Last week, Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) announced he would be seeking cancelation of the contract with Elevate Strategies at the next commissioners court meeting scheduled for September 14.

Earlier this week, Ramsey submitted an agenda request pointing out that commissioners had not been informed of the composition of the vetting committee nor given details about the selection process. He also said they had not been given any information about the winning vendor or the subcontracting that would be necessary for a one-person company to complete the project.

Ramsey also noted that in June commissioners were told the issue would be brought back for a vote of final approval, but instead the expenditure was presented in August as a “non-transparent budget transfer” that did not require any further approval. 

Ramsey took to social media Wednesday following Hidalgo’s announcement to express a greater need for transparency.

“Today Judge Hidalgo announced she is canceling the contract ‘because it’s being politicized.’ She is quoted saying, ‘it’s the truth of the matter,’” wrote Ramsey. “The truth is actually documented in several places how this one-person firm apparently was given special treatment by her office in order to win the bid. I will continue to ask for transparency in all county business.”

Fort Bend County is also drawing scrutiny after hiring Democratic political group Next Wave Strategies to conduct door-to-door vaccine outreach. Freedom Matters Action Group, which advocates for limited government in Texas, has requested documentation related to the Fort Bend contract but says the county has only complied with half of its Freedom of Information Act requests. 

According to online data, the county has already paid Elevate Strategies $539,000. 

“Instead of offering an apology to Commissioner Cagle and recognizing something was wrong, Hidalgo politicized the issue by calling him a bold-faced liar and then saying, ‘Bring it on,’” said Bettencourt. “Well congratulations, a whole bunch of people brought it on.”

Update: On Tuesday, September 14, the commissioners court voted unanimously to cancel the contract with Elevate Strategies.

“It just breaks my heart to see another casualty…and that is a casualty of the political forces that started with President Trump politicizing the pandemic,” said Hidalgo.

“Let the record reflect my eyes are rolling,” replied Cagle.

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Holly Hansen

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.

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