HOUSTON — Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she would not ask three senior aides to step down Tuesday as she addressed new details in the criminal investigation of how an $11 million COVID-19 vaccine outreach contract was awarded.
“From the facts that I know, what I’ve seen, there isn’t information that warrants that,” Hidalgo said during a recess of the regularly scheduled Commissioners Court public meeting.
The Texas Rangers seized computers and phones from the judge’s senior staff members which allegedly show they gave a vendor inside information about the job. In January 2021, weeks before the contract bid was made public, emails and text messages to Felicity Pereyra and her firm Elevate Strategies, indicate she received the “scope of work” for the project and a note that county employees were “happy to discuss further,” according to the search warrants.
“Because it’s an ongoing investigation, I can’t address many of the misleading and sometimes false allegations that are swirling around,” Hidalgo said. “A lot of what was released this past Friday was out of context, it was private messages, private emails, presenting a single side of what took place.”
The judge would not provide details on her or her staff’s side of what took place but said the contract process was all about finding the best vendor for the job.
According to the search warrants, the bidder who scored the highest was UT Health. But a senior staff member on the evaluation committee texted that “we need to slam the door shut on UT and move on.”
Elevate Strategies, which scored the second-highest during the evaluation process, eventually won the $10.9 million contract in June 2021. In September 2021, Hidalgo canceled the contract amid the controversy.
Hidalgo said the ongoing criminal investigation prohibited her from commenting on specific details in the search warrant.
“Eventually, all of the facts will be public, that’s why it’s important to let the process play out and the process will play out,” Hidalgo said.
Hidalgo’s attorney Eric Gerard provided the following statement:
“The affidavit released last Friday reveals a profound misunderstanding of what actually happened. Many of the emails and text messages in the affidavit relating to a different project than the vaccine outreach contract awarded to Elevate Strategies. Yet they are taken out of context and presented as though they all address the same thing. They don’t. This is why the law requires grand jury investigations to remain secret – so the misguided theories of a half-baked investigation aren’t publicized before the facts are understood. We’re confident that when the facts do come out, they will show that Judge Hidalgo did nothing wrong.”
No one has been arrested in this case, but the three staffers could face charges of tampering with a government document and misuse of official information according to the search warrant.