Judge Lina Hidalgo silent as county commissioner seeks stays, other contract issues emerge
This is the first public meeting since search warrants made public on Friday detail allegations about what appears to be a months-long effort by Harris County executives to direct the multimillion-dollar contract to Elevate Strategies, a small business based in Houston.
Text messages and emails, collected by investigators, reveal that weeks before its release, senior Hidalgo executives allowed Elevate Strategies founder Felicity Pereyra to review and revise the scope of work of the project.
As part of this investigation, no charges have been brought against anyone and Hidalgo stands by his staff.
RELATED: 13 Investigations: Harris County Contract Search Warrant Details Alleged Benefits
Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who was the only commissioner to vote against the Elevate contract last year, said he was shocked by what the affidavits revealed.
Cagle said senior executives under investigation should not be involved in the procurement process until the case is closed.
“The affidavits indicate that this was a case of bid-rigging,” Cagle said Monday. “That they worked in the very beginning to funnel this particular contract to this particular person and because of this breach of trust they should not be involved in any further contracts unless they are exonerated in within the framework of the law.”
As part of their investigation, officials seized phones, laptops and desktop computers for Aaron Dunn, then-senior adviser for public safety and emergency management in the county, Wallis Nader, who is the deputy director of Hidalgo policies, and Alex Triantaphyllis, who is now the director of Hidalgo. current chief of staff, but served as his deputy chief of staff last year.
13 Investigators repeatedly asked Monday to speak with Hidalgo and whether any of those three senior executives mentioned in court documents had been reassigned or left the county since the warrants were issued. None have, and we haven’t heard from Hidalgo since he reached out again this week.
Today, Hidalgo’s lawyer said: “The unproven allegations contained in the search warrant issued on Friday take the private text messages and emails out of context, misrepresent crucial facts and paint a misleading picture of what what actually happened. For one thing, the terms of reference confuse different projects. Some of the communications you refer to are not related to the vaccine awareness tender at all. This is what is happening when excerpts from an ongoing investigation are released piecemeal to the media, rather than kept confidential – as they should be – until they are featured in We are confident that when the facts come to light in their entirety, the public will see that Judge Hidalgo’s conduct in this case was entirely appropriate and consistent with her high ethical standards.
But the statement from Hidalgo’s attorney doesn’t clear up our confusion over how the $11 million COVID-19 outreach contract was awarded to the company that came in second when a five-member panel people rated it.
Whenever the offer was finally opened to the public, the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at Houston and two other groups also submitted proposals for consideration.
Dunn, Nader and Triantaphyllis were part of the five-person committee responsible for scoring the proposals.
Investigators found that UT’s Houston Health Sciences Center scored the highest at 46.8%, followed by Elevate Strategies at 40.4%, raising concerns among some county commissioners.
A review cited in the search warrant says UT Health was dropped because the county was unhappy with its work on other projects.
“In a text between Dunn, Nader, and Triantaphyllis on May 7, 2021, Dunn asked Triantaphyllis if he could ‘do the RFP outreach meeting that’s going on right now? Triantaphyllis replied, “No. Take it off. And don’t let UT get it,” according to a search warrant.
Before anyone can submit an offer, investigators say text messages between top staffers in Hidalgo’s office from Jan. 5, 2021 to Jan. 7, 2021, “discuss hiring Pereyra to work with them, but we don’t know exactly in what capacity”.
On January 14, 2021, an email from Pereyra to a colleague suggests his company was in direct contact with Hidalgo’s office, according to the search warrant.
The tender was not made public until more than a month later, on February 19, 2021.
Elevate Strategies won a nearly $11 million contract in June 2021.
Following initial contract concerns, the Hidalgo team linked a video from September 2021 on its “Truth Center” webpage, writing, “County Purchasing has testified on multiple occasions that the procurement process for the vaccine outreach contract was conducted according to the rules.”
The Texas Rangers, Texas Department of Public Safety investigators, said the information Pereyra reviewed was “substantially the same” as that included in the final tender. If so, Dewight Dopslauf, the county’s purchasing officer, told Rangers it would be “inappropriate and if true the company should ‘be disqualified’.”
On Monday afternoon, Dopslauf told us he was unaware of the work staff members were doing with Elevate.
“The facts are that this company was selected by a committee of which I had no idea which companies applied,” Hidalgo said during a meeting of commissioners on August 24, 2021.
But emails and text messages revealed in court documents suggest that senior Hidalgo executives on January 7, 2021 “decided to send a scope of work proposal for Pereyra to Hidalgo for consideration.”
The Elevate contract was ultimately canceled in September 2021, three months after it was awarded, but not before the county paid them $1.4 million.
The county only asked for $207,524 of the $1,425,237 it reimbursed Elevate Strategies to recover the cost of “50 one-year unlimited data plans for 50 tablets” and “ad reservations digital”.
Elevate repaid this amount to the county last fall.
Cagle said all taxpayer funds given to Elevate should be returned to the public with what has come to light.
“When that contract was pre-purchased with the vendor and then went through the ‘public process,’ with the fix already in place, every penny has to go to the public,” Cagle said.
That request is not on Tuesday’s commissioner’s agenda, but Cagle said the question of whether it was possible could be asked.
“I don’t know yet exactly what questions I will be asking. I will say I feel vindicated when Precinct 4 voted no against the contract early on because it didn’t smell good.”
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