Three of Lina Hidalgo’s aides, including chief of staff, indicted in Harris County contract award scandal

Judge Lina Hidalgo visits the Harris County Public Health Department in Houston on May 13, 2020. (Mark Felix For The Texas Tribune, Mark Felix For The Texas Tribune)

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Three employees of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo have been indicted by a grand jury on charges related to how they helped award a contract for COVID-19 vaccine outreach last year.

The Harris County district clerk lists two felony counts each for chief of staff Alex Triantaphyllis, policy director Wallis Nader and former policy aide Aaron Dunn. The charges are misuse of official information and tampering with a government record.

The charges add weight to a scandal Hidalgo has attempted to dismiss as politically motivated, and they threaten to tarnish her carefully cultivated image as an ethically minded public servant as she seeks reelection this year. Hidalgo is widely seen as a rising star in the Texas Democratic Party and a future statewide candidate.

In a statement Tuesday, Hidalgo defended the trio and said she had seen nothing to suggest they had done anything wrong. She suggested the investigation is politically motivated and purposefully timed during her campaign.

"I ran against a style of politics in Harris County that worked more for the individuals who held office than for the people who voted for them," Hidalgo said. "I don't play the game. And that's threatening to the powers that be."

The three employees were part of a selection committee to choose a vendor for a COVID-19 vaccine outreach campaign Hidalgo wanted. The committee, which also included members of the county health department, unanimously awarded an $11 million contract to Elevate Strategies, a small political consulting firm owned by Felicity Pereyra, who has previously worked on Democratic campaigns.

The committee had rated a cheaper bid from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston highest in a scoring competition. After interviewing the top applicants, the group decided to award the contract to Elevate. Hidalgo's office said the firm's background in political communications was exactly the skill set needed for the vaccine outreach campaign, which was to include digital ad buys and door-to-door canvassing.

Republicans have seized on this as evidence of corruption, alleging without evidence that Hidalgo was funneling money to help the Democratic Party build relationships with voters. Hidalgo accused Republican county commissioners of spreading conspiracy theories, though she agreed to cancel the contract in September because she said it had become too politicized.

Court records filed by the Texas Rangers, who are assisting prosecutors, suggest the inquiry focuses on whether Hidalgo’s office inappropriately involved Pereyra in designing the bid proposal she would later win.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office said it could only confirm charges after delivering arrest warrants to defendants.

Republican County Commissioner Jack Cagle, who began asking questions about the contract last summer, said in a statement he took no pride "in being right about this."

"This is a major black eye for Harris County," Cagle said. "Now it’s time for the courts to sort it out."

We can’t wait to welcome you in person and online to the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival, our multiday celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news — all taking place just steps away from the Texas Capitol from Sept. 22-24. When tickets go on sale in May, Tribune members will save big. Donate to join or renew today.