Rangers serve warrants at Harris County building as contract investigation intensifies

BySarah Rafique KTRK logo
Saturday, March 12, 2022
Warrant served at county offices as contract investigation intensifies
Texas Rangers are seizing documents from Harris County Administration offices in an investigation into a multimillion dollar COVID-19 contract.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Law enforcement sources tell 13 Investigates that Texas Rangers are in the process of serving search warrants at locations across Harris County.

Starting early Friday morning, Texas Rangers fanned out across Houston, seizing electronics from the executive offices at Harris County Administration offices in an investigation into a COVID-19 contract awarded to a firm with alleged ties to members of the county administration. Other locations have been and are being visited by Rangers as well.

The Texas Rangers is a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety, who in a statement to 13 Investigates said it is working with the Harris County District Attorney's Office's prosecutors and investigators to serve multiple search warrants, at the request of the DA's office.

"We would refer additional questions to the DA's Office," DPS said.

In a brief statement, the DA's office tells 13 Investigates, "A judge signed search warrants which are legal authorization to search for and seize potential evidence of a crime. Out of fairness for all parties involved, we have no additional comment at this time."

Note: The video above is from a previous report.

Friday's warrant is the latest and most public sign of an intensifying investigation into how a multimillion dollar COVID-19 contract was awarded to a company called Elevate Strategies.

Elevate Strategies, run by Felicity Pereyra, won the contract in June 2021, beating out much larger health care companies, which had also bid. A call to Pereyra Friday morning has not been returned.

Amidst controversy over the hiring, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo canceled the deal months later. But, county documents obtained by 13 Investigates show the county still paid nearly $1.4 million on the contract as it wound down.

Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle, who voted against the contract, said he's glad it is being investigated and that when it first came before commissioner's court, it "smelled wrong."

Still, he said it was a "bad" day for the county.

"It's never a good day when your local government has its main offices raided by Texas Rangers," Cagle told 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg. "At the end of the day, we are public servants and we need to make sure that everything is done above board, where everyone can see what all the cards are on the table."

In an effort to address "myths and facts about the Harris County Judge's Office," the county sitehas a page that includes multiple claims about Elevate's contract and responses to those claims.

Hidalgo's spokesperson did not comment and referred questions 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 to 13 Investigates. "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."

When questioned about the contract in a commissioner's meeting last year, Hidalgo said "bring it on because there's nothing here."

Since then, some of 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 shows the company refunded the county for the cost of "50 one-year unlimited data plans for 50 tablets" and "digital ad reservations."

In November 2021, the Harris County district attorney demanded documents from multiple county offices examining how the county selected a vendor for an $11 million vaccine outreach contract.

13 Investigates sources confirmed then that commissioners' offices received subpoenas requesting documents from January 2021 until November 2021. The broad request asked not only about the winning firm, but other bidders as well.

Elevate Strategies is a small Houston firm and the contract was designed to reach unvaccinated people in Harris County to convince them to get vaccinated.

Pereyra assisted in the 2015 Houston mayoral campaign for Adrian Garcia, who is now a Harris County Commissioner for Precinct 2, according to initial reports from the Houston Chronicle. Garcia previously told the Chronicle he was not involved in awarding the contract and didn't know about Pereyra's connection beforehand.

When asked about the subpoenas in January, a lawyer for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told 13 Investigates, "we have always followed the law and we continue to follow the law."

Last summer, Hidalgo told commissioners to "bring it on" during a Harris County Commissioner's Court meeting discussing Elevate Strategies.

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 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."

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