The threat of indictments hanging over County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office centers on this allegation: Some of the judge’s top aides contacted a business owner who was awarded a controversial contract to raise awareness of $11 million vaccines about the effort weeks before it went up for competition. .

Lawyers for Hidalgo and his aides, however, say records show one document was sent to the owner in error, another was sent as part of an unrelated project, and that Hidalgo staff did not see the company as a potential supplier for vaccine work.

Three weeks ago, the Texas Rangers obtained search warrants to seize phones and computers from the homes or offices of three Hidalgo staff members as part of the investigation. The contract was canceled in September at Hidalgo’s request after accusations that his office referred him to Elevate Strategies founder Felicity Pereyra, a Democratic political consultant.

The warrants, made public two weeks ago, show the investigation focused on possible misuse of information, a crime, after Hidalgo employees allegedly gave ‘an advantage to a competitor’ in a bidding process by corresponding with Pereyra weeks before the county solicits proposals. for the contract that Elevate ultimately won.

Investigators are also investigating possible false statements the aides – chief of staff Alex Triantaphyllis, policy director Wallis Nader and former senior adviser Aaron Dunn – allegedly made stating that they complied with county policies during of the award of the contract. The three staff members were part of the five-person panel that evaluated vaccine outreach proposals from Elevate and three other vendors.

No charges have been filed in this case.

Numerous emails, text messages and other files shared with the Houston Chronicle add context to the communications cited in the search warrants.

These broader records, like the warrants, focus on the frantic chatter within the judge’s office in the first weeks of 2021, as another wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations peaked and officials public urged Americans to get the newly available vaccines.

Staff at the judge’s office, records show, discussed two separate COVID-19 projects in the first weeks of the year: seeking Pereyra’s assistance in distilling COVID data for the judge’s review and initiating a effort to boost vaccine use in low-participation communities – the contract Pereyra would later win.

As a model for this latest effort, Hidalgo pointed to the work Pereyra had done for the county during the 2020 census.

“Do we want to dump this on Felicity as well, or is it too much on our plate?” Triantaphyllis texted his colleagues on the evening of January 7. “Maybe we can add it as a data-driven part of his job.”

Triantaphyllis quickly typed up a summary of “community outreach” for “equitable vaccine distribution” and added it to the bottom of a description of the proposed COVID data project for Pereyra.

When Hidalgo approved the draft data a few days later, the file excluded this “outreach” language, but this verbiage was still in the text that Nader then sent to Pereyra.

Triantaphyllis, who later told Nader he “must have communicated incorrectly on which one to send”, spoke to Pereyra two days later and then emailed him the correct scope of work for the data project, without the “awareness” language. He also sent Pereyra a COVID data update — and an email with two attachments outlining Hidalgo’s vaccine outreach plans.

One of the attachments, according to court records, was “substantially the same” as the request for proposals that was issued for the vaccine supply five weeks later.

“Non-Public Information”

Investigators appear to view this as an example of “non-public information” received by Pereyra, which could form the basis of possible charges of “misuse of official information”.

Triantaphyllis attorney Marla Poirot said her client sent Pereyra the vaccine outreach information because she would be expected to analyze the progress of that effort along with the rest of her work on vaccines. data.

“For a criminal offense, you need intent,” said former federal prosecutor Philip Hilder, who reviewed search warrants but has no involvement in the case. “It’s not just a liability like Rangers would have you believe. This is the problem. Much more investigation needs to be done on this.

The text messages indicate that Hidalgo staff had not yet decided whether to bid on the vaccine project or select a vendor using the COVID-19 judge’s emergency powers. The texts, Poirot pointed out, show aides did not view Pereyra as a supplier for vaccine work.

Records show that Triantaphyllis, while discussing the vaccine project with colleagues, thought of asking “Felicity to go and find one or more suppliers” and “to ask Felicity (if we close her on the data) for ideas on who can do this.”

As the county prepared to put the vaccine contract up for competition, Triantaphyllis suggested the purchasing staff send the documents to Pereyra and two other Houstonians familiar with community outreach. And when the supply had been online for nearly a week with no response, Dunn emailed it Feb. 25 to 16 entities, including Pereyra, Baylor, UT Health and progressive groups.

Poirot said those efforts were aimed at getting help from Pereyra and others to generate more supply responses.

The day Dunn sent her email, however, records show that Pereyra downloaded the procurement documents and then emailed a colleague, saying she had been invited to bid on the contract.

“I feel really good about my chances of landing the project (they asked me to design the program beforehand, but then I was told to go to the tender),” he said. she writes, according to the search warrants.

Camp Hidalgo’s lawyers dispute Pereyra’s characterization. The lawyers pointed out that the search warrants themselves said the procurement documents were “substantially the same” as the vaccine document Pereyra received on January 15, suggesting that she had no part in it.

Lawyers for Pereyra, Dunn and Nader declined to comment or failed to respond in time.

Pereyra, who on February 24 had declined the data work, citing its limited availability, submitted an offer for the vaccine outreach work on March 8, the day the proposals were due. UT Health Science Center in Houston and two other companies also submitted proposals.

Triantaphyllis, Nader, Dunn and two public health staff reviewed the proposals, scoring each using a rubric that assessed factors such as a company’s experience, management capacity and development plans. prospecting in the neighborhoods. UT’s $7.5 million bid was ranked first, with an average score of 48; Pereyra came in second at 40.8 with a bid of $19.3 million.

The panel invited Pereyra, UT and a third company to return for interviews on March 31, but UT did not show up or respond to inquiries for six days, according to the emails. Representatives for UT Health declined to comment on Friday.

Triantaphyllis repeatedly texted colleagues in April to inquire about the status of the supply. “This vaccine awareness thing is getting ridiculous,” he texted Nader on April 20. “We have to slam the door at UT and move on.”

UT representatives did not attend their interview until April 28, according to a September memo circulated by procurement staff. The review panel also noted that UT’s performance on a separate COVID project caused the county to cancel that contract earlier in the year.

Pereyra eventually revised his proposal to $11 million and his contract was approved by the Court of Commissioners in June. Court voided contract in September at Hidalgo’s request; the county is now working to recover approximately $1 million paid to Elevate.

“Political theater”?

Hidalgo’s lawyers called the investigation “political theatre” by Democratic District Attorney Kim Ogg, who repeatedly asked for more prosecutors from Hidalgo and his fellow Democrats in the Court of Commissioners and been repeatedly rejected.

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the case appears to have merit, but Ogg’s decision to pursue this investigation rather than others of similar merit could be seen as political.

“Politics probably plays a role,” Jones said. “Ogg has conflicts with the Court of Commissioners, especially with Hidalgo.”

University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghous suggested the scandal is escalating because he is one of the few Hidalgo has faced, and because she is considered a “rising star” in the world. democratic party whose opponents would like to slow down the rise.

“Search warrants are important steps in a legal journey to find the truth. Our prosecutors will follow the evidence wherever it leads and apply the law equally to everyone,” Ogg spokesman Dane Schiller said.

Hilder, the former federal prosecutor, said he doesn’t accept the argument that Ogg was pursuing the case to punish Hidalgo for rejecting his funding requests. He did, however, express concerns about the evidence described in the court documents.

“While the allegations are quite concerning, they don’t tell the whole story and I would caution against a rush to judgement,” Hilder said. “Rangers appear to be drawing conclusions which may not be substantiated when all the facts are known.”

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