HOUSTON — Three indicted senior staffers from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo's office made their first court appearances Tuesday morning, while their boss made her first comments.
Alex Triantaphyllis, Wallis Nader and Aaron Dunn were indicted Monday following an investigation into an $11 million COVID vaccine outreach contract.
All three face felony charges of misuse of official information and tampering with a government record.
Hidalgo made her first public comments about the indictments Tuesday with a lengthy statement on Twitter.
"I don't think it's a coincidence that unfair accusations are being leveled against my team in the middle of my re-election campaign," Hidalgo tweeted. "I do not, and will not, cave to bullying or political dirty tricks. I have not seen anything to suggest my staff did anything but work tirelessly for the people of Harris County. They will remain on my team." Full statement posted below.
Triantaphyllis, 38, is currently Hidalgo's chief of staff. Nader, 36, currently serves as policy director and Dunn, 35, is a former staffer.
"After listening to the prosecutor's rendering of probable cause, I'm really, really curious to see how in the world they're going to prove this case," Dunn's attorney said after the hearing. "I represent an innocent man, and we look forward to fighting it."
"There has been no wrongdoing here. We're glad to be in a fair and objective forum, finally," Triantaphyllis' attorney, Marla Poirot, said.
Prosecutor Michael J. Levine also made a statement but didn't comment specifically on the cases.
“I want to thank the grand jury. We had a grand jury that met for a long time. We heard from a lot of witnesses. They were dedicated, they were focused, they paid a lot of attention, so I just want to say thank you to that grand jury.”
Judge Vanessa Vasquez granted bonds totaling $3,500 for each defendant.
Read full statement from County Judge Lina Hidalgo
"I've made my feelings known about this investigation which has dragged on for months. Various news reports have shown that it's proceeding with what is, at best, a serious misinformation of the facts. I'm very confident that, when the facts are known, my team will be cleared. 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 that worked more for the individuals who held office than for the people who voted for them. I don't play a 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 leveled against my team in the middle of my re-election campaign.
I do not, and will not, cave to bullying or political dirty tricks. I have not seen anything to suggest my staff did anything but work tirelessly for the people of Harris County. They will remain on my team."
Vaccine contract investigation
At issue is whether Hidalgo staffers gave Elevate Strategies LLC and its owner Felicity Pereyra insider information about the project weeks before a request for proposals was open to the public.
Staffers were said to also have worked to ensure another company didn’t win the contract, according to a search warrant.
Four companies ultimately applied for the project after the request for proposal became public in February.
The contract was awarded to Elevate Strategies in June 2021 but was later terminated in September 2021 due to the company's inexperience with public health outreach and alleged ties to local Democratic party officials.
The investigation into the staffers' involvement in the contract heated up on March 11 when the Texas Rangers and the Harris County District Attorney's Office served search warrants to the Harris County Administration Building.
Computers and phones of at least two of her staff members were seized at the time, according to sources.
Most recently, the Texas Rangers have looked into the Google accounts of six senior staff members of the Hidalgo's office, as well as the judge herself. Investigators seized a total of 14 Google files relating to the vaccine outreach contract.
No charges have been filed against Hidalgo or the other three senior staff members.
“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," Dane Schiller, spokesman for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement Tuesday.
KHOU legal analyst Carmen Roe says it appears this investigation is far from over.
"If I'm in her [Judge Hidalgo]'s office I'm shaking in my boots," said Roe. "This is not going to end well for anyone in that office who had anything to do with those contracts."
Statements from lawyers
Alex Triantaphyllis' attorney:
"We look forward to the upcoming court proceedings, which will shine a light on the fact that there has been no wrongdoing here. These charges against my client are unsupported by a full and objective review of the facts and the voluminous evidence in this case."
Aaron Dunn's attorney:
"Aaron Dunn is innocent. He has been an honest and dedicated public servant. He didn't share any information, he didn't commit any crime, and ultimately he will be vindicated."
There has been no response yet from Wallis Nader or her attorney and neither commented after Tuesday's court appearance.
Court records show all three defendants have posted bond. Their next court date is June 8.