HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- More than 50 pages of court documents detail allegations into what appears to be a months-long effort by Harris County leaders to award a nearly $11 million COVID-19 outreach contract to a particular vendor.
The court documents say the leaders spoke with the vendor who got the job weeks before the invitations to bid were even public. Newly public text messages between county employees reveal the Harris County District Attorney's Office is investigating a "misuse of official information" by top Harris County staffers when soliciting proposals and deciding who to award the contract, according to search warrants obtained by 13 Investigates.
In many cases, county contracts, like the vaccine outreach project officials are investigating, are put out to bid. It is an advertisement to potential vendors that a job is available.
The bid, formally called a Request for Proposal, lays out a scope of work and timelines for when proposals should be submitted. The proposals are then judged and scored before a final decision is made. The process is supposed to be fair and open to all bidders and overseen by Harris County's Purchasing Department.
Now, court documents suggest investigators are piecing together a process that didn't follow those rules and may have given unfair advantages to the eventual winner, a small Houston-based firm called Elevate Strategies.
Text messages and emails, already collected by investigators, reveal that weeks before it was made public, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo's senior staffers allowed Elevate Strategies founder Felicity Pereyra to review and revise the scope of work of the project.
No charges have been filed against anyone as part of this investigation.
Investigators said text messages between top staffers at Hidalgo's office from Jan. 5, 2021, to Jan 7, 2021, "discuss hiring Pereyra to work with them, but it is unclear in exactly what capacity."
By Jan. 14, 2021, an email from Pereyra to a coworker suggests her company was in direct contact with Hidalgo's office, according to the search warrant.
The RFP wasn't made public until more than a month later, on Feb. 19, 2021.
The Texas Rangers, who are investigators with the Texas Department of Public Safety, say the information Pereyra reviewed was "substantially the same" as what was included in the final RFP. If that is the case, a senior staffer to the Hidalgo told the Rangers it would be "inappropriate." The county's director of purchasing told investigators, if true, the firm should "would be disqualified."
Instead, Peryera's Elevate Strategies won the $10.9 million deal in June 2021. Almost immediately after the award was given to Elevate Strategies, objections were raised on the Harris County Commissioner's Court. The contract was canceled months later in September 2021, but not before the county paid them $1.4 million.
In November 2021, the Harris County district attorney demanded documents from multiple county offices examining how Elevate was selected.
In a statement responding to the public release of the search warrants on Friday, an attorney for Hidalgo said, "this misleading storyline is the latest act of political theater from a politically motivated investigation."
"Ultimately, this was about dedicated public servants trying to get the best team to fight COVID-19 in Harris County. Since she came into office, Judge Hidalgo has held herself and her staff to the highest ethical standards and is the only official to refuse donations from all County vendors," according to Friday's statement.
Earlier this year, an attorney for Hidalgo told 13 Investigates, "we have always followed the law and we continue to follow the law."
Last week, when we asked Hidalgo's spokesperson about the warrants that were served at Harris County administration offices, our questions were referred to the judge's law firm.
"The Judge has the strictest ethical guidelines ever imposed in Harris County and that's been ironclad from day one," Hidalgo's attorney said in a statement last week. "This is nothing but political theater since the devices would have been provided on request. What's missing is any shred of evidence, but what's in abundance is politics."
A copy of the search warrants made public this week outline who at county judge's office was involved in conversations with Peryera before the bid was open the public. The documents reveal the investigation has already gathered substantial evidence from some senior employees.
An affidavit and search warrant signed March 10 requests documents and electronic communications from members of Hidalgo's team, including her chief of staff.
As they sought search warrants to seize phones and computers, state investigators said they believed county employees tampered with a government document, including text messages, call history, call logs, voice messages and other documents or files related to discussions surrounding the controversial contract that was awarded to the small Houston-based company.
The search warrant indicates that once the bid was open to the public, a text message between two top Hidalgo staffers on April 20, 2021, says they "need to slam the door shut" on UT Health Science Center at Houston, one of Pereyra's competitors who also submit a bid for the outreach contract. Elevate was awarded the contract in June 2021.
In one exchange on Jan. 7, 2021, investigators say county officials "decide to send a proposed scope of work for Pereyra to Hidalgo for review." Investigators also cite a working Google document where multiple county employees helped craft language that is in line with work Pereyra could perform for the county.
Public access to information that would help organizations formulate project proposals wasn't available until Feb. 19, 2021, and closed on March 8, 2021 - months after conversations between Pereyra and county officials.
As part of their investigation, officials seized phones, laptops and desktops for Aaron Dunn, then a senior advisor for public safety and emergency management at the county, Wallis Nader, who is Hidalgo's deputy policy director, and Alex Triantaphyllis, who now Hidalgo's current chief of staff but was her deputy chief of staff last year.
Marla Poirot, attorney for Alex Triantaphyllis, told 13 Investigates that "the accusations against my client are baseless."
"As others have pointed out, these activities are nothing more than a ploy designed to attack public servants committed to the best interests of the people of Harris County for their own political gain. For over a decade, Alex Triantaphyllis has dedicated his professional life to serving the community with a particular focus on emboldening and empowering underserved and often disenfranchised communities," according to the statement Poirot sent Friday evening. "Alex's service to Harris County has always been guided by making the people the top priority. In the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis, Alex has worked tirelessly to ensure that taxpayer resources are utilized as effectively and efficiently as possible."
13 Investigates also reached out to Pereyra, Nader and Dunn the warrants became public, but did not hear back by Friday evening. An automatic response from Dunn said, "I am no longer with the Harris County Judge's Office, and am not monitoring this email address."
In a text message at 4:06 p.m. Jan. 14, 2021, Nader asks Triantaphyllis which one of them should speak with Pereyra in response to some questions she has about their approach to the scope of work for the contract. Triantaphyllis said he should talk to her "in case she asks about money," according to the search warrant.
Then, at 8:03 p.m. that same day, Hidalgo texts Triantaphyllis and her then-chief of staff Joe Madden that she "took a stab at the scope document in the census doc. What I don't know is whether these folks will be in charge of the data or whether Felicity (Pereyra ) can do the disparities data too - whether these folks will be in charge of operational advice, for example whether we need to have roving teams or something like that."
Pereyra had some experience working with the county on its Census Outreach campaign. In an email to a colleague the night of Jan. 14, 2021, Pereyra says "Judge Hidalgo's office in Harris County just reached out to me about 1) taking over COVID 19 intelligence and analytics and 2) managing a community outreach campaign to push us close to herd immunity. They also reached out to me to do redistricting too," according to the search warrant
Then, in a Feb. 25, 2021, email Pereyra said, she was invited to apply for the outreach campaign and 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 to RFP), so I'm just starting to build a team," the search warrant says.
Whenever the bid was finally open to the public, weeks after Pereyra had conversations with Hidalgo's staff, 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.
Investigators found UT Health Science Center at Houston received the highest score with 46.8% followed by Elevate strategies with 40.4%, raising concerns among some county commissioners.
"Although Elevate Strategies LLC received the second highest score, they were considered the best proposal due to their firm understanding of the requirements and the provision of strong overall submission," according to a review cited in the search warrant. It says that although UT Health Science Center at Houston received the highest score "community outreach work they have provided for other projects such as Harris SAVES has not shown to be successful."
But, text messages from before Elevate was awarded a contract up to $10.9 million in June 2021, indicate there were other reasons UT may not have received the bid.
"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.
13 Investigates reached out to UT on Friday and they said "we will not be releasing a statement."
In an earlier text message on April 20, 2021, Triantaphyllis texted Nader, "This vaccine outreach thing is getting ridiculous. We need to slam the door shut on UT and move on."
In an interview with investigators this year, Dunn "stated that he created the scope of work for the Vaccine Outreach (Request for Proposal)" and confirmed that the document titled "Vaccine-related community engagement scope" was sent by Triantaphyllis to Pereyra.
Dunn told investigators it was the same document used for the proposal, but denied knowing that his colleagues communicated with Pereyra about it prior to it being publicly available.
"Dunn confirmed in his opinion that would be inappropriate," according to investigators.
Investigators say that when Dunn, Triantaphyllis and Nader signed agreements saying they compiled with the Purchasing Code of Ethics related to the proposal, they "all three made false statements in a governmental record and committed tampering with a government record," according to the search warrant.
"Through email and phone conversations on Jan. 13, 2021, through Jan. 24, 2021, Dunn, Nader and Triantaphyllis obtained non-public information due to their employment at the Harris County Judge's office, and that the information disclosed to Pereyra pertained to an ongoing competitive situation and the release of the information harmed Harris County by providing an advantage to a competitor in a particular competitive situation, and they shared this non-public information with Pereyra aiding her in obtaining a pecuniary interest in the contract for Targeted Community Vaccine Outreach, committing misuse of official information," the search warrant says.
Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle, who was the sole commissioner who voted against the Elevate contract, told 13 Investigates last week that when the contract first came before commissioner's court, it "smelled wrong."
During the Aug. 24, 2021, meeting, Commissioner Jack Cagle asked for more information on who follows up with vendors who receive millions of dollars in contracts to make sure work is being performed to standards.
The county's budget officer said the $11 million contract to Elevate wouldn't be paid all at once, but instead based on the work performed, adding that progress would be monitored.
The meeting last summer got heated when Cagle said, "in the Elevate contract, obviously the one-person shop can't handle all of the work that is to be required."
Hidalgo interrupted Cagle, saying he was mischaracterizing the company with a "bold-faced lie."
"You well know it's not a one-person shop," Hidalgo said.
"This firm was selected by a committee that I had no idea who the firms were that applied. I didn't know who was selected until the (vendor) was selected. Once the vendor was selected, I learned it was the same vendor that did some of our Census outreach, which was very robust. That could not have been done by a one-person firm," Hidalgo said. "... I do not know this person other than they did the Census work, and from what I know, they did a good job at it."
After several minutes of Cagle and Hidalgo going back and forth about the company, Hidalgo said the contract is no different than any other vendor the county works with. Commissioners said they looked forward to learning more details about the Elevate contract in future meetings.
"Bring it on. Bring it on because there's nothing here," Hidalgo said. "Other than the appropriate COVID response and someone who has gone to lengths to even avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest."
Amid controversy, Hidalgo canceled Elevate's contract. Since then, some of the money paid to Elevate and the equipment purchased with it was returned by the contractor to Harris County.
The county asked for $207,524 of the $1,425,237 it paid Elevate Strategies back. The company refunded the county $177,181.54 on Sept. 29, 2021, and the remaining $30,342.70 on Oct. 26, 2021.
Invoices and refund checks obtained by 13 Investigates last week shows the company refunded the county for the cost of "50 one-year unlimited data plans for 50 tablets" and "digital ad reservations."
For the latest investigations, follow Ted on Facebook and Twitter.
Have a tip for Ted Oberg? A problem to solve? Get in touch with us on our tip page, or send a tip below. (On mobile? You can open our form by tapping here.)