13 Investigations: Grand jury finds evidence to indict Harris County employees for misuse of public information

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) — Three senior Harris County judges’ office officials have each been charged with misappropriating official information and tampering with government records after investigating allegations that they channeled nearly $11 million in COVID-19 vaccine Outreach contract with a small Houston based company.

Alex Triantaphyllis, who was now the current chief of staff for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo but was her deputy chief of staff last year, Aaron Dunn, then the county’s senior adviser for public safety and emergency management, and Wallis Nader, who is Hidalgo’s deputy policy director , were charged this morning.

An indictment is not a guilty verdict, it is simply that a grand jury composed of county residents has determined that there is sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against an individual.

Search warrants released last month indicate that Harris County Attorneys and the Texas Rangers were investigating whether Triantaphyllis, Dunn and Nader communicated with Elevate Strategies founder Felicity Pereyra about possible work for the county before making a bid for the vaccine -Reconnaissance work has been released to other potential vendors.

RELATED: 13 Investigations: Harris County contract search warrant, details of alleged benefits

In a statement to 13 Investigations last month, Triantaphyllis’ lawyer said, “The allegations against my client are unfounded.”

“Alex’s service to Harris County has always been guided by putting people first. In the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis, Alex has worked tirelessly to ensure taxpayers’ resources are used in the most effective and efficient way possible,” said his attorney, Marla Poirot.

Calls to Dunn and Nader went unanswered.

An additional warrant released last week aimed to steal documents from the Google customer accounts of Triantaphyllis, Dunn and Nader, as well as Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, their communications director Rafael Lemaitre and Kathryn Kase, who serves as the county’s attorney , to search and seize judicial office.

Investigators have not accused or accused Hidalgo, Lemaitre or Kase of misusing official information.

“This warrant was requested and copied at the same time as the others and simply inserts the same misleading allegations based on the same extracts from the same documents,” Hidalgo’s attorney Eric Gerard said in a statement to 13 Investigates last Thursday. “We reiterate our concern that this investigation appears to be moving forward despite a fundamental misunderstanding of the facts.”

In a statement to 13 Inquiries on Thursday, Lemaitre’s attorney, Murray Newman, of the law firm of Newman & Chappell, said: “Since the beginning of this investigation, Mr. Lemaitre has fully cooperated with investigators and is only referred to as a witness in the most recent documents released by prosecutors .”

Kase’s attorney, Nick Dickerson, said she was not a target of the investigation, just a witness.

“As an associate of the judge and custodian of records, Ms. Kase would certainly have been involved in the creation and editing of documents available on Google Docs from time to time,” Dickerson said. “We have nothing to hide. We collected more than two and a half terabytes of data and turned thousands and thousands of pages of documents. These (four) search warrants themselves are a bit strange. It seems they could be used to end attorney-client privilege.”

During a nearly 20-minute press conference last month, Hidalgo provided few details on the allegations and referred questions to her attorney, but reiterated that everything she’s done was “completely overboard and done in the interests of the people of Harris.” County in mind with the interests of fighting COVID 19.”
“Because this is an ongoing investigation, I am unable to address many of the misleading and sometimes false allegations that are circulating as I would like, and you know I would be the first to wish to do so . ‘ Hidalgo said last month. “What I can say is this: I abide by the law.”

Hidalgo campaign spokesman Toni Harrison told 13 Investigates’ Ted Oberg this week that Pereyra should never receive the scope of work for the vaccine outreach contract before it was publicly cleared for vendors to bid.

When Oberg asked why she was given the scope of work for the contract, Harrison said, “As wild as that sounds, human error.”

“She was sent a scope of work. That was the wrong document. It was just human error,” Harrison said. “I (send) the wrong attachment (to people) sometimes. I probably do this once a day. (In this case) you will see a path where that will be corrected and another message will be sent to (Pereyra) saying ‘This is actually the correct scope of work approved by the judge.”

The affidavits contain no messages to Pereyra that suggest the scope of work — which Texas Rangers says is similar to that for the RFP — was sent to her in error.

When asked about it, Harrison said, “That’s going to come out.”

RELATED: Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo calls search warrants ‘misleading’ in contract controversy.

The search warrant released last week asked Google to release all versions of three links to Google Docs they believe are related to the project, as well as the email addresses of those with whom the Google Docs were shared . Different versions of the same document could give investigators a sense of how the project and its scope evolved as Hidalgo senior officials and an eventual vendor pored over it.

According to investigators, Triantaphyllis, Nader and Dunn reportedly communicated with Pereyra in January 2021, allowing her to review and revise the project’s scope of work for nearly a month before a call for tender was publicly available to all on February 19, 2021.

In an email dated February 25, 2021, “Pereyra says she’s just been invited to apply for Harris County’s major COVID-19 awareness program (campaign) to reduce vaccine hesitancy project (they asked me to design the program beforehand, but then they were told to put out a bid), so I’m just starting to build a team,'” the search warrant reads.

Harrison said Pereyra is being considered for a data analyst position — not the vaccine brokerage contract.

“Many of these text messages that you see in the affidavit were not related to the RFP. In fact, the tender was not considered at that time. They were discussing a position on data analysis,” Harrison said. “At the time it was like this, we needed someone who could understand data and process that data and help us decode it. Miss Pereyra served on the Harris County census and Fort Bend did an excellent job so it was considered and that’s what the deployment was for.”

Harrison said Pereyra eventually turned down the data analyst position. Apparently the position was never filled.

Elevate Strategies was awarded the multimillion-dollar vaccine distribution contract in June 2021, but it was canceled amid controversy three months later.

Even though the contract was terminated in September 2021, Elevate was still paid $1.4 million.
The district said Elevate is cooperating to repay $1.2 million of the funds received.

As part of their investigation, officers confiscated phones, laptops and desktops from Dunn, Nader and Triantaphyllis.

Whenever the application was eventually made public, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and two other groups also submitted proposals for consideration.

Dunn, Nader and Triantaphyllis were members of the five-member committee tasked with evaluating the proposals.

Last month, independently of the inquiry, Hidalgo said as part of a recent review of the county’s procurement processes, “No office will have staff on selection committees going forward.”

The committee gave Houston’s UT Health Science Center the best score, at 46.8%, followed by Elevate Strategies at 40.4%, the investigators said. This raised some concerns among the commissioners.

A review cited in the search warrant said UT Health was passed on because the county was unhappy with its work on other projects.

“In a May 7, 2021 text between Dunn, Nader and Triantaphyllis, Dunn asked Triantaphyllis if he could ‘do the outreach RFP meeting that’s happening now?’ Triantaphyllis replied: ‘No. take it away And don’t let UT get it,'” read a search warrant.

Harrison said that while the affidavits suggest UT is performing better than Elevate Strategies, that was actually just the first round score.

“There are several rounds in every tendering process. The first round is usually a written proposal. The best of these bids comes for a formal presentation. At that point we’re starting to see the difference between Elevate and UT from maybe an accountability that UT didn’t show up for their first round of presentations,” Harrison said. “Here you have a vendor who didn’t show up for the next round and who also manages another project within the county. It’s not going very well. There are some rumors that we may need to make a change on this account. It’s almost like a reference check, if you will, at this point and as you evaluate , we’re talking about an outreach campaign that’s knocking on the door and going into underserved communities, Elevate comes out on top.

Looking ahead, Harrison said the district is making changes to document naming to ensure potential district contract providers aren’t sent RFPs before they’re released, especially by mistake.

“(This case) was a human error, the wrong document was sent. Now we have an exercise. There’s a drill in how we do that to make sure we’re sending the right document, which makes a big difference in situations like this,” she said.

Harrison said there were no personnel changes as a result of the search warrants.

“We are not rushing to a judgment because we know there was no manipulation in this bidding process,” she said.

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Copyright © 2022 KTRK-TV. All rights reserved. 13 Investigations: Grand jury finds evidence to indict Harris County employees for misuse of public information

Dais Johnston

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