Harris County contract investigation stretches out over 14 months, according to law enforcement

Wice: “Light is beginning to be shined on possible violations of state criminal law by public servants”

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas – When the Texas Rangers executed search warrants at the offices and residences connected to members of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s inner circle on March 11, the takeaway was clear according to KPRC 2′s Legal Analyst Brian Wice.

“Light is beginning to be shined on possible violations of state criminal law by public servants,” Wice said.

Possible violations involving senior staffers in Hidalgo’s office, according to law enforcement.

Hidalgo’s position? “What I can say is this I follow the law,” said the 31-year-old county judge during a recent news conference.

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office and the Texas Rangers are investigating how an $11 million contract was awarded to the county.

“When we investigate public corruption, we are doing our job,” said Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg.

However, how did the awarding of a contract turn into a criminal investigation? After all, the contract in question focused on community outreach and COVID vaccinations.

“The intention was to quickly build the best grassroots, outreach campaign that we could,” Hidalgo stated.

Search warrants show investigators began looking at the contract back in January 2021 which involved three senior aides, Chief of Staff Joe Madden and Deputy Chief of Staff, Alex Triantaphyllis, and Deputy Policy Director Wallis Nader.

Search warrants also show they spoke with the founder of Elevate Strategies, Felicity Pereyra, to “work with them, but it is unclear in exactly what capacity,” according to officials.  

Hidalgo says the full story is not being told. “A lot of what was released this past Friday, it was out of context,” she said.

On January 13, there were inquiries asking Pereyra - a potential vendor - for her “thoughts and proposed budget.”

Other messages indicate more conversations between county employees and Pereyra about the project. The warrant shows Hidalgo texting her team with input.

When KPRC 2 Investigates asked Hidalgo who came up with the idea, she did not hesitate.

“Where did this idea come from? We all worked on it together. I don’t remember where the idea came from initially, it may have been someone hearing from some of the other jurisdictions doing something similar, but certainly, we were all in conversations. What should it look like? How would we like to design it? And then the concept was built,” said Hidalgo.

In February, four other vendors were invited to take part in the Request for Proposals.

Elevate Strategies and UT-Health were two of the vendors in the mix.

By mid-April, a member of Hidalgo’s team texted saying, “We need to slam the door shut on UT and move on,” later writing “don’t let UT get it.”

Hidalgo also spoke about those messages. “What was presented was one-sided. Of course, it sounds alarming because it was meant to sound alarming.”

On May 24, a letter awarding the nearly $11,000,000 contract to Elevate Strategies was signed. 

Commissioner’s Court makes it official in June. However, it was revealed UT-Health scored higher than Elevate Strategies.

Hidalgo pulled the contract in September 2021 citing “politics.”

“I do think the situation is quite unfair, it breaks my heart,” she said.

The DA’s office launched an investigation and the Rangers joined in October.

Five months later, all of it is described as a “politically motivated investigation” by Hidalgo’s attorneys.

“There is no political ploy,” said Ogg who went on to add, “We’re doing our job. That’s not politics. That’s just work.”

When asked if she believes her office will be handling the case or handing it off since her office relies on Hidalgo’s support for budgets, Ogg tells KPRC 2 Investigates, “We intend to prosecute whatever case may come out of the grand jury investigation.”

About the Author: