New Questions Surface Around $11 Million Contract Awarded to Highly Connected Democratic Strategist in Harris County
Although three people have been indicted on felony charges, new questions have surfaced about a since-canceled $11 million contract for COVID-19 vaccine outreach awarded to a highly connected Democratic strategist in Harris County.
Last fall, the district attorney’s office assembled a grand jury to investigate the contract award process, and last month the Texas Rangers executed search warrants at county offices seizing computers and phones containing communications about the project.
Search warrant affidavits documented communications about a project between Hidalgo, several staff members, and Pereyra as early as January 2021, long before the county invited vendors to submit requests for proposals.
On April 11th, the grand jury handed down indictments for three Hidalgo staffers, Aaron Dunn, Wallis Nader, and Triantaphyllis, each for felony charges of tampering with a government record and misuse of official information.
Commissioners voted to approve the contract with Elevate Strategies in June 2021, but in August learned the sole owner and only employee of the firm was Felicity Pereyra, a former campaign manager for Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2). Pereyra had also worked for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Further investigations revealed members of Judge Lina Hidalgo’s staff had requested changes to experience and qualifications required to bid on the project to favor Elevate Strategies strengths, and that of the four entities submitting proposals, the University of Texas (UT) Health Science Center earned a significantly higher score at a lower cost to the county tax payers. Hidalgo’s Chief of Staff Alexander Triantaphyllis texted a member of the project selection committee that they “needed to slam the door shut on UT.” Despite the disparity in qualifications and cost, Felicity Pereyra was awarded the $11 Million contract.
Judge Lina Hidalgo announced on September 8, 2021 that she was cancelling the contract. Hidalgo who has maintained that her office did nothing wrong, asserted that the communications detailed in the search warrant affidavits were “private” and “taken out of context,” and has rejected calls to suspend or terminate the three indicted staff members.
Public records published by former Houston mayoral candidate and lawyer Bill King indicate the county made a payment to Pereyra of $539,363 the same day as the announcement the contract was being terminated. On September 14, the commissioners’ court voted unanimously to cancel the contract, but public records show the county made yet another payment to Elevate Strategies on September 16 for $885,874, bringing the total paid out to the data analytics firm housed in a Montrose apartment to $1.4 million. Pereyra signed the contract with the county on July 27, 2021, and according to records submitted a first invoice for payment just five days later for $539,363. Contract terms state, “in accordance with the Texas Constitution, the county is prohibited from paying contractor in advance for any of the services or deliverables.”
During a March 2022 meeting of the commissioners’ court, First Assistant County Attorney Jay Aiyer told commissioners Elevate Strategies had repaid about $200,000 and he was expecting another $500,000 in repayment soon, with possibly a second $500,000 later.
The criminal cases for Dunn, Nader, and Triantaphyllis were assigned to the 351st District Court under Judge Natalia Cornelio, but following revelations that Cornelio has close ties to Nader and accepted campaign donations from Hidalgo’s attorneys and Pereyra, the cases could be assigned to another judge.