Harris Co. judge's senior staff indicted on misuse allegations in $11M contract investigation

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- Three senior staffers at the Harris County Judge's Office have each been indicted on one count of misuse of official information and one count of tampering with a government record following an investigation into allegations they steered a nearly $11 million COVID-19 vaccine outreach contract to a small Houston-based firm.

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

An indictment is not a finding of guilt, just that a grand jury, comprised of county residents, found there was enough evidence to pursue criminal charges against an individual.

Documents with more details about the indictments have not been uploaded and made public through the Harris County District Clerk's website as of late Monday afternoon.

Search warrants made public last month indicate the Harris County District Attorney's Office and Texas Rangers were investigating whether Triantaphyllis, Dunn and Nader communicated with Elevate Strategies' founder Felicity Pereyra about possible work for the county before a bid for the vaccine outreach work was made public to other potential vendors.

RELATED: 13 Investigates: Search warrant on Harris County contract details alleged advantages

Derek Hollingsworth, an attorney for Aaron Dunn, said in a statement on Monday that "Aaron Dunn is innocent. He is an honest and dedicated public servant. He didn't commit any crime, and I am confident that he will be vindicated."

In a statement to 13 Investigates on Monday, Triantaphyllis' attorney Marla Poirot, said, "We look forward to the upcoming court proceedings, which will shine a light on the fact that there has been no wrongdoing here. These charges against my client are unsupported by a full and objective review of the facts and the voluminous evidence in this case. In his service to Harris County, Alex has made the people the top priority and worked to ensure that taxpayer resources are utilized as effectively and efficiently as possible."

Calls to Nader have not been returned.

An additional warrant made public last week sought to search and seize documents from the Google customer accounts for Triantaphyllis, Dunn and Nader, as well as Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, her Communications Director Rafael Lemaitre and Kathryn Kase, who serves as counsel for the county judge's office.

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

"This warrant was sought at the same time as the others and simply copies and pastes the same misleading allegations, based on the same cherry-picked excerpts of 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 rushing forward despite a fundamental misunderstanding of the facts."

An attorney for Hidalgo said on Monday that they have not received a copy of the indictments and would provide a comment once they had a chance to review them.

Hidalgo's campaign spokesperson, Toni Harrison, said, "We've yet to see the substance of the charges and can't comment until we do."

In a statement to 13 Investigates on Thursday, Lemaitre's attorney, Murray Newman, with Newman & Chappell Law Firm, said, "Since the inception of this investigation, Mr. Lemaitre has been fully cooperative with investigators and is merely referenced as a witness in the latest documents released by the District Attorney's Office."

Kase's attorney, Nick Dickerson, said last week that Kase is not a target of the investigation, just a witness.

"As a member of the judge's staff and custodian of the records, Ms. Kase certainly would've been involved from time to time in drafting and editing documents available in Google Docs," Dickerson said. "We have nothing to hide. We've collected more than two and a half terabytes of data and turned over thousands and thousands of pages of documents. These (four) search warrants themselves are a little odd. It seems they may be used as an end-around of the attorney-client privilege."

During a nearly 20-minute news conference last month, Hidalgo offered few details into the allegations and referred questions to her attorney, but reiterated that everything she has done "has been completely above board, has been made with the interests of the people of Harris county in mind, with the interests of fighting COVID 19."

"Because it's an ongoing investigation, I can't address many of the misleading and sometimes false allegations that are swirling around as much as I'd want to and you guys know that I'd be the first one to want to do that," Hidalgo said last month. "What I can say is this, I follow the law."

Harrison told 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg last week that Pereyra was never supposed to receive the scope of work for the vaccine outreach contract before it was publicly released for vendors to bid on.

When Oberg asked why she received the scope of work for the contract, Harrison said, "as wild as this may sound, human error."

"She was sent a scope of work. That was the incorrect document. It was simply human error," Harrison said. "I (sometimes send) the wrong attachment (to people). I probably do that once a day. (In this case), you'll see a trail where that is corrected and another message is sent to (Pereyra) and it says, this is actually the correct scope of work approved by the judge."

The affidavits do not include any messages to Pereyra indicating she was sent the scope of work - that Texas Rangers say is similar to the one for the RFP - by accident.

When asked about it, Harrison said, "that will come out."

RELATED: Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo calls search warrants into contract controversy 'misleading'

The search warrant made public last week called on Google to turn over all versions of three Google Docs links which they believe are related to the project as well as the email addresses for the individuals who the Google Docs were shared with. Different versions of the same document could give investigators a sense of how the project and its scope evolved as Hidalgo's senior staffers and an eventual vendor pored over it.

According to investigators, Triantaphyllis, Nader and Dunn allegedly communicated with Pereyra in January 2021 and allowed her to review and revise the project's scope of work nearly a month before a bid for proposals was publicly available to all on Feb. 19, 2021.

In a Feb. 25, 2021 email, "Pereyra states she had just been invited to bid for Harris County's large COVID-19 outreach program (campaign) to decrease vaccine hesitancy. She stated that she has 'really solid relationships in house and I feel really good about my chances in landing the project (they asked me to design the program beforehand but then were told to go RFP), so I'm just starting to build out a team,'" according to the search warrant.

Harrison said Pereyra was being considered for a data analyst position - not the vaccine outreach contract.

"Many of those text messages you see in the affidavit were not with any regard to the RFP. In fact, the RFP wasn't a consideration at the time. They were discussing a data analytics position," Harrison said. "At the time it was, we need someone who can understand data and crunch this data and help us decipher through it. Miss Pereyra had done a wonderful job on the Census outreach in Harris County and Fort Bend, so she was considered, and that's what the outreach was for."

Harrison said Pereyra eventually declined the data analyst position. It appears the job was never filled.

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

Even though the contract was canceled in September 2021, Elevate was still paid $1.4 million. The county has said Elevate is cooperating in paying back $1.2 million of the funds it received.

Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who was the sole commissioner who voted against the Elevate contract last year, called it a "sad day" for county residents.

"These trusted employees of the taxpayers, guardians of the taxpayers' dollars, should not be in that position until the judicial system has done its job now that the indictments are there," Cagle said.

Hidalgo said on March 22 that she had no plans to let go of anyone involved.

"I will keep looking and digging and trying to get a grasp on everything that took place and everything else that comes out. But right now, I don't believe (letting anyone go) is warranted," Hidalgo said last month. "I believe that the decisions my team made (were) based on fighting against COVID-19. I believe, from where I'm standing, that that was the intention behind the decisions made in my office. But, you know, we'll continue looking at the facts."

In a statement, Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said, "I am aware of the latest developments with regards to legal accusations against staff in another office. I caution anyone from coming to any conclusions before all parties have had an opportunity to present their facts."

Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey said, "It's a shame we've gotten to this point. I've had questions about this contract, which I included as a court agenda item on the very day it was canceled. While they remain unanswered, there's still a lot of work to be done. Distrust in government is not what our constituents deserve. I'm hopeful the courts will find answers, so that we can begin to restore faith and integrity in Harris County again."

Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said, "During her time in office, Judge Hidalgo has gone out of her way to hold herself and her staff to the highest ethical standards. From recent press reports we have seen, there are still too many unanswered questions about the facts of the Elevate contract investigation for us to pass judgment. These public servants have earned the benefit of the doubt until the system plays out and the facts prevail."

As part of the investigation, officials seized phones, laptops, and desktops for Dunn, Nader and Triantaphyllis.

Whenever the bid was finally open to the public, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and two other groups also submitted proposals to be considered.

Dunn, Nader, and Triantaphyllis were on the five-person committee tasked with scoring the proposals.

Last month, Hidalgo said irrespective of the investigation, as part of a recent review of the county's purchasing procedures, "No office will have staff members on selection committees going forward."

The committee scored UT Health Science Center at Houston the highest with 46.8% followed by Elevate strategies with 40.4%, according to investigators. That raised some concerns among commissioners.

A review cited in the search warrant said UT Health was passed upon because the county wasn't happy with its work on other projects.

"In a text between Dunn, Nader, and Triantaphyllis on May 7, 2021, Dunn asked Triantaphyllis if he could 'make the outreach RFP meeting that's happening now?' Triantaphyllis replied, 'No. Take it away. And don't let UT get it,'" according to a search warrant.

Harrison said although the affidavits indicate UT scored better than Elevate Strategies, that was actually just the score for the initial round.

"In any competitive bid process, there are multiple rounds. First round is usually a written proposal. The best of those bids comes in for a formal presentation. It was at that point we start to see the difference between Elevate and UT from maybe an accountability standpoint in that UT did not show up for their first presentation round," Harrison said. "Here you have a vendor who hasn't shown up for the next round, who's also managing another project within the county. It's not going very well. There are some rumblings that maybe we need to make a change on that account. It's almost like a reference check if you will, at that point and as you're evaluating, we're talking about an outreach campaign door knocking, going into underserved communities, Elevate came out ahead.

Moving forward, Harrison said the county is implementing changes to how documents are named to ensure potential vendors for county contracts aren't sent RFPs before they're public, especially by mistake.

"(This case) was human error, the wrong document was sent. Now we have a practice. There's a practice on how we do that to ensure we're sending the right document. Look at the document name, thinks like that can make a huge difference in these types of situations," she said.

Harrison said there have been no staffing changes as a result of the search warrants.

"We are not rushing to any sort of judgment because we know there was no manipulation of this bidding process," she said.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has not commented on the indictments.

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