Team Hidalgo hunkers down as contract questions continue

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- On Tuesday, Harris County commissioners are expected to discuss newly released search warrants into allegations of misuse of official information by senior staffers at County Judge Lina Hidalgo's office regarding how a nearly $11 million COVID-19 outreach contract was awarded.

It's the first public meeting since search warrants that became public on Friday detail allegations into what appears to be a months-long effort by Harris County leaders to steer the multimillion-dollar contract to Elevate Strategies, a small Houston-based firm.

Text messages and emails, collected by investigators, reveal that weeks before it was made public, Hidalgo's senior staffers allowed Elevate Strategies founder Felicity Pereyra to review and revise the project's scope of work.

As part of this investigation, no charges have been filed against anyone, and Hidalgo is standing by her staff.

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

Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who was the sole commissioner who voted against the Elevate contract last year, said he was shocked by what the affidavits revealed.

Cagle said the senior staffers being investigated should not be involved in the procurement process until after the case is over.

"The affidavits indicate that this was a case of bid-rigging is the phrase," Cagle said on Monday. "That they worked in the very beginning to funnel this particular contract to this particular individual and because of that breach of trust they shouldn't be involved in any other contracts unless they're exonerated in the course of law."

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 is now Hidalgo's current chief of staff but was her deputy chief of staff last year.

13 Investigates asked several times on Monday to speak with Hidalgo and if any of those three senior staffers mentioned in court documents have been reassigned or left the county since the warrants were posted. None have, and we haven't heard from Hidalgo since reaching out again this week.

Today, Hidalgo's attorney said, "The unproven allegations in the search warrant released Friday take private text messages and emails out of context, misstate crucial facts, and paint a misleading picture of what really happened. For one, the warrant confuses different projects. Some of the communications you refer to don't relate to the vaccine outreach RFP at all. This is what happens when snippets of an ongoing investigation are released piecemeal to the media, rather than kept confidential - as they should be - until they are presented in court. We are confident that when the facts come out in full, the public will see that Judge Hidalgo's conduct in this matter was entirely appropriate and in keeping with her stringent ethics standards."

But, Hidalgo's attorney's statement isn't clearing up our confusion over how the $11 million COVID-19 outreach contract was awarded to the firm that came in second place when a five-person committee evaluated it.

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.

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.

A review cited in the search warrant says 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.

Before anyone could submit a bid, investigators say 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.

Elevate Strategies was awarded a nearly $11 million contract in June 2021.

Following the initial concerns about the contract, Hidalgo's team linked to a September 2021 video on its 'Truth Center' web page writing, "The county's purchasing department has repeatedly testified that the procurement process for the vaccine outreach contract was conducted according to the rules."

The Texas Rangers, investigators with the Texas Department of Public Safety, said the information Pereyra reviewed was "substantially the same" as what was included in the final RFP. If that is the case, Dewight Dopslauf, the county's head of purchasing, told the Rangers it would be "inappropriate and if true, the firm should "would be disqualified."

Monday afternoon, Dopslauf told us he was unaware of the work staffers did with Elevate.

"The facts are this firm was selected by a committee that I had no idea who were the firms that applied," Hidalgo said during a commissioner's meeting on Aug. 24, 2021.

But emails and text messages revealed in court documents suggest Hidalgo's senior staffers on Jan. 7, 2021, "decide to send a proposed scope of work for Pereyra to Hidalgo to review."

The Elevate contract was eventually canceled in September 2021, three months after it was awarded, but not before the county paid them $1.4 million.

The county has only asked for $207,524 of the $1,425,237 it paid Elevate Strategies back to recover the cost of "50 one-year unlimited data plans for 50 tablets" and "digital ad reservations."

Elevate paid that amount back to the county last fall.

Cagle said all the taxpayer funds paid to Elevate should go back to the public with what's come to light.

"When this contract was shopped in advance with the vendor and then gone through the 'public process,' when the fix was already in, every penny needs to go back to the public," Cagle said.

That request isn't on Tuesday's commissioner's agenda, but Cagle said the question about if it's possible could be asked.

"I'm not sure yet, just exactly what all the questions that I will ask. I will say that I feel vindicated that when Precinct 4 voted no against the contract in the beginning because it didn't smell right."

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