Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo calls search warrants “misleading” in Elevate Strategies contract controversy.

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) — Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo addressed allegations that three of her officers misappropriated public information to secure a nearly $11 million COVID-19 intelligence contract for the first time to run a small Houston – based company .

“I know there are many allegations floating around, and I would like to respond to them,” Hidalgo said during a break in Tuesday’s Harris County Commissioners meeting.

Although the judge took about 18 minutes to answer reporters’ questions, Hidalgo admitted little to no details about the conversations she or her associates had with Elevate Strategies founder Felicity Pereyra before her award in June 2021 .

“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. “What I can say is that I abide by the law.”

Investigators said text messages and emails between senior staff showed they communicated with Pereyra in January 2021 and allowed Pereyra to review and revise the project’s scope of work for nearly a month before a Feb. 19, 2021 public tender for all was accessible.

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

Elevate Strategies was awarded a nearly $11 million COVID outreach contract with the county in June 2021, but it was canceled three months later.

“I would like to be able to address certain facts. Much of what was published last Friday was taken out of context. It was private messages, private emails that presented a single page of what happened, and there’s a reason you’re not supposed to be doing that,” Hidalgo said. “This is information that should remain confidential, until there is an opportunity for both sides to express themselves.”

When 13 Investigates’ Ted Oberg urged Hidalgo to speak out and ensure both sides are presented, the judge said, “I’d love to do that. I would like to take allegation by allegation, but if there is an ongoing investigation that has obviously been made clear to the press that this is the case, I simply cannot answer those specific facts.

No charges were brought as a result of this investigation.

Even though the contract was terminated in September 2021, Elevate was still paid $1.4 million.

Harris County District 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who was the only commissioner to vote against the Elevate contract in 2021, said during Tuesday’s commissioners’ meeting that any tax money paid to Elevate should be returned to the county.

On Tuesday, the district said Elevate must repay the district $1.2 million of the $1,425,237 it was paid.

Elevate repaid the county $207,524 in the fall. A district attorney says $500,000 will be returned to the district “soon” and another $500,000 will be returned “later.”

The district said Elevate will withhold approximately $200,000 it incurred from “legitimate expenses to which they are legally entitled.”

“I would encourage you to track every penny that’s been paid,” Cagle said.

Hidalgo said the outreach contract granted to Elevate is part of an initiative to reach communities “that have fallen behind” to build trust in the COVID vaccine.

RELATED: Team Hidalgo duck as contract questions continue

Hidalgo now said nothing she saw warranted letting any of the officers at the search warrant center go.

“I will keep searching and digging and trying to understand everything that happened and everything else that comes out. But right now I don’t think letting anyone go is justified,” Hidalgo said. “I believe the decisions my team made were based on the fight against COVID-19. I believe, from my perspective, that was the intention behind the decisions that were made in my office. But you know, we’ll keep looking at the facts.”

As part of their investigation, officers confiscated phones, laptops and desktops from Aaron Dunn, then the county’s chief public safety and emergency management adviser; Wallis Nader, Hidalgo’s deputy political director, and Alex Triantaphyllis, who is now Hidalgo’s current chief of staff but was her deputy chief of staff in 2021.

Whenever the application was finally 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.

Hidalgo said independently of the investigation, 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.

When 13 Investigates asked Hidalgo if she was surprised to see this text from her associate, she referred the question to her attorney.

“I’d like to say more, but I can’t,” Hidalgo said. “What I’m saying is that what was presented was one-sided. Of course it sounds alarming because it’s supposed to sound alarming because it’s one-sided. But there are certain parts where we have to wait for the process to be completed.”

Hidalgo’s lawyers have called the release of the search warrants a “misleading act (that) is the latest act in the political theater of a politically motivated investigation.”

Although Hidalgo, who is up for re-election in November, said she would not comment on the Harris County District Attorney’s motivation, she acknowledged it is a political season.

“I may be relatively new to politics, but I know politics when I see politics,” Hidalgo said. “I may be young and I understand that some of it comes from that, but I’m battle hardened and I won’t be put off.”

Harris County Prosecutor Kim Ogg said Tuesday an investigation into allegations of misuse of public information was not due to politics.

“There is no political trick,” said Ogg. “When we investigate public corruption, we’re doing our job.”

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Copyright © 2022 KTRK-TV. All rights reserved. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo calls search warrants “misleading” in Elevate Strategies contract controversy.

Dais Johnston

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