Judge voluntarily recuses self from COVID-19 outreach contract case involving Hidalgo senior staffers

HOUSTON – A judge has decided to recuse herself from the case involving three of Judge Lina Hidalgo’s senior staffers charged in an $11 million COVID-19 vaccine outreach contract controversy.

Judge Natalia Cornelio, of the 351st Criminal Court, officially filed paperwork this week to separate herself from the proceedings.

The order of voluntary recusal read,

Related: 3 Hidalgo staffers indicted in $11M COVID-19 outreach contract investigation appear in court

“As the Judge presiding over this matter, I remain able to base any decisions in this matter on the facts as they develop and I remain able to render a fair and impartial judgment.

“Nonetheless, so that the State of Texas, the Defendant, and the public will maintain trust in the judiciary, and to avoid any appearance of impropriety, I sua sponte recuse myself. "

Alex Triantaphyllis, Hidalgo’s current chief of staff, policy director Wallis Nader and a former senior advisor, Aaron Dunn, have all been charged with felony misuse of official information and tampering with a record.

They were each named in search warrants executed by Texas Rangers on March 11.

Related: Felony indictments filed for Harris Co. Judge Lina Hidalgo’s chief of staff, 2 others in $11M COVID-19 outreach contract investigation

According to search warrants, investigators were looking for any communications or files that may show they disclosed non-public information to Felicity Pereyra, who founded Elevate Strategies.

Elevate Strategies was awarded the multi-million dollar contract by the county. However, it was revoked last fall after questions surfaced about how it was awarded.

Related: New search warrant requests Google Docs in probe involving Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, team

All three staffers have been released on a $3,500 bail.

As a condition of their bonds, the trio cannot discuss details of the case with one another, they cannot have contact with any documentation related to the case and they cannot serve on any committee or group that would be considered any kind of government contract.

According to Cornelio’s website, Hidalgo endorsed her when she was running for her current position.

Elevate Strategies’ Founder Felicity Pereyra also donated to Cornelio’s campaign. A search of records from Texas Ethics Commission shows the total amount of the donation was $100.

“I think this judge is to be commended. There’s no question that she could be fair and impartial but this judge is smart enough to recognize, it’s not just if she can subjectable be fair and impartial in these cases but whether the public itself might have a problem with the optics. And to her credit, this judge has pulled the trigger and voluntarily recused herself which I think is the absolute right thing to do,” said Brian Wice, KPRC 2 legal analyst.

“Given the judge’s close relationship to at least one of the defendants, a recusal is appropriate; our work continues,” said Dane Schiller, a spokesman for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office said.

Judge Vanessa Velasquez was on the bench as a visiting judge filling in for Cornelio last week when Triantaphyllis, Nader and Dunn appeared in court.