HARRIS COUNTY, Texas — The Texas Rangers have turned to Google in the ongoing investigation of how a $10.9 million contract was ultimately awarded to a small firm that did not score the highest during the evaluation process.
A newly released fourth search warrant in the probe named the Google accounts of six senior staff members of the Harris County Judge’s Office, as well as Judge Lina Hidalgo herself. Investigators seized a total of 14 Google files relating to a vaccine outreach contract.
At issue is whether county officials gave small-firm Elevate Strategies LLC and its owner Felicity Pereyra early information about the project, including Google Docs with the scope of work, weeks before bid documents were made public to other vendors last year.
Previously released search warrants only sought computers and phones from three county judge employees – a policy director, senior advisor and the current chief of staff -- and not Hidalgo. Those three employees, Hidalgo and three more employees – a communications director and senior advisor, legal counsel and a former chief of staff -- are named in the new warrant.
“I think Lina Hidalgo, at this time, is being targeted to the extent that they believe, based on the search warrant affidavits, that she played a role,” KHOU 11 legal analyst Carmen Roe said. “And the question is, what role she played and to what extent she had knowledge.”
Three Google Docs may have been shared with Pereyra on Jan. 13, 2021, and Jan. 15, 2021, prior to the first time other vendors could obtain a copy of the project’s request for proposal on Feb. 19, 2021, according to the search warrant. Investigators sought the files to learn who accessed them and when they made any changes, comments or edits.
Text messages and emails in the search warrant include an apparent draft of the request for proposal in January with a note from a senior staffer to “let us know your thoughts and proposed budget after you’ve had a chance to review,” adding they were “happy to discuss further if that would be helpful.”
“So Google Docs is going to be critical in this case because it's going to create a timeline. And it's going to tell us whose DNA is on this project,” Roe said.
In the search warrant, investigators wrote that “the release of the information harmed Harris County by providing an advantage to a competitor in a particular ongoing competitive situation.”
Read the warrant below:
Elevate Strategies won the contract in June 2021, despite another vendor, UT Health Service Center, receiving a higher evaluation score and offering a lower bid.
Three of the county judge employees named in the warrant sat on the five-member evaluation committee. The search warrants detailed texts messages sent among them during the evaluation process.
According to the search warrant, on April 20, 2021, one staffer texted another, “This vaccine outreach thing is getting ridiculous. We need to slam the door shut on UT and move on.”
In another text between the three staffers on May 7, 2021, a staffer asked another “if he could ‘make the outreach RFP meeting that's happening now?" (a staffer) replied ‘No. Take it away. And don't let UT get it.’”
In September 2021, county commissioners canceled the contract amid the controversy, according to county records.
No one has been charged in the investigation, overseen by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. Possible charges include tampering with a governmental record and misuse of official information, according to the warrant.
An attorney for Hidalgo sent KHOU 11 the following statement:
"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. We reiterate our concern that this investigation appears to be rushing forward despite a fundamental misunderstanding of the facts."