Harris County senior staffers indicted in $11M contract investigation appear in court

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said on Tuesday she's standing by her staff after indictments related to allegations that senior staffers steered a nearly $11 million COVID-19 vaccine outreach contract to a small Houston-based firm.

Alex Triantaphyllis, who is Hidalgo's current chief of staff but was her deputy chief of staff at the time the allegations took place, 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 Monday. Each one of them was indicted on one count of misuse of official information and one count of tampering with a government record.

"I've made my feelings known about this investigation, which has already dragged on for months. Various news reports have shown that it's proceeding with what it is, at best, a serious misunderstanding of the facts. I'm very confident that, when the facts are known, my team will be cleared," Hidalgo said in a statement on Tuesday. "I do not, and I will not, cave to bullying or political dirty tricks. I have not seen anything to suggest that my staff did anything but work tirelessly for the people of Harris County. They will remain on my team."

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.

"Since the State of Texas disbanded the Public Integrity Unit, which was housed at Travis County District Attorney's Office, the responsibility for such work has landed exclusively with district attorneys across the state," said Dane Schiller, spokesman for the Harris County District Attorney's Office. "Prosecutors presented the evidence to a Harris County grand jury, which determined there was sufficient evidence for criminal charges. We will follow the evidence wherever it leads and apply the law equally to all; our work continues."

Since 2014, there have been less than 20 misuse of official information charges filed in Harris County. It is a third-degree felony.

A 13 Investigates analysis of data from the Harris County District Attorney's Office shows over the last three years, nearly 53% of the roughly 53,200 third-degree felony cases filed in the county have been disposed. For those cases that have been resolved, our analysis found the average time before a disposition was 297 days.

Triantaphyllis, Nader and Dunn appeared in court Tuesday morning with their attorneys and received $3,500 bond each.

The judge told all three of them that they can't discuss the case with one another and are also barred from participating in evaluation committees for county contracts.

As they left the courtroom, Triantaphyllis' attorney Marla Poirot said her client would not be answering any questions.

"There's been no wrongdoing. We're glad to be in a fair and objective forum finally. There's been one side of the story released to date and reported on. We're excited to have our side of the story out there," Poirot said.

Derek Hollingsworth, an attorney for Dunn, also did not answer questions but offered a statement.

"I'm proud to represent a public servant. After listening to the prosecutor's rendition of probable cause, I'm really curious to see how in the world they're going to prove this case, but I stand by my client. He's innocent and we look forward to having our day in court," Hollingsworth said.

Calls to Nader have not been returned and on Tuesday, her attorney declined to comment.

There is no apparent policy on how the county handles this. In 2012, a county commissioner didn't resign until he arranged a plea to federal charges. Last year, a county commissioner staffer stayed on the job even after her plea, only resigning when it became public.

Conversely, county law enforcement are routinely put on leave even before charges are brought.

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

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 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."

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."

On Tuesday, Hidalgo said, "I've held myself to the highest ethical standards and that's reflected in my unprecedented commitment not to accept money from anybody who does business with the county. The people I choose to serve in my office understand that code of ethics. I ran against a style of politics in Harris County that worked more for the individuals who held office than for the people who voted for them. I don't play the game. And that's threatening to the powers that be. I think the notion is that if they come after me on what is my strength - the ethics of this office and my own - that they can score political points. I don't think it's a coincidence that unfair accusations are being levied against my team in the middle of my re-election campaign."

Hidalgo's campaign spokesperson, Toni 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.

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, things 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.
Copyright © 2022 KTRK-TV. All Rights Reserved.